Sitting in the funeral home on a plush red chair, sandwiched between my parents, I look around. I notice the patterned carpet, the CD player in the corner, the coffin in the middle of the room, the paintings on the walls, of boats and lighthouses and mountains. I feel as far away from such scenes as I have ever felt. We are holding the smallest funeral service I have ever witnessed, for a woman we share a last name with, but whom we really didn’t know. She lived for 98 years: a long time to be alive, a long time to be known. The only other attendees are the funeral director, the rector of the local church, a neighbour, and my great aunt’s two pals. We have taken to calling her two pals “the lads” because it seems fitting. Their age is inestimable. They could be 70, 80, or 90. We don’t hazard a guess. They were a tight-knit group, by all accounts, my great aunt and the lads. They were her protectors, but also the source of her need for protection. They were her best friends and her most constant annoyance. They were her surrogate family, but each was a complete mystery to the other two.
My great aunt was certainly a mystery to us. She was the last living member of a complicated and fractured family, the youngest of my Grandad Fred’s many sisters. My Grandad Fred and I crossed paths only briefly - my first few months of life were his last. I’m told he was a steady and reliable and kind man, but a man of few words. The rare times he mentioned his youngest sister, he spoke fondly of her. We learned this at her funeral from my own dad, who, as her closest living relative, gave a eulogy of sorts. He told us the little he knew of his aunt, based on the little his dad had told him, and the letters and postcards he’d found in a box in our attic the previous evening. He said she was kind and funny, with a sharp wit that could offend an overly sensitive ear.
Over tea and biscuits afterwards, in a room to the side, the lads told us stories about my great aunt that would have some clutching their pearls in horror, but had us choking on our tea in fits of laughter. I hope she heard us. I have no doubt her wit pleased her as much as those whom she made laugh. 98 years of making people laugh, imagine that. One of the lads talked about being especially sad at her death on account of all the arguments they’d had over the years. She was feisty and independent, and I have no doubt she would argue with the Good Lord Himself (maybe she is now).
These two men became her guardians, often arriving at her hall door offering unwanted help, and a shopping bag with bread and milk and tea bags. They took it in turns to cut the grass, always told “you can cut the grass but you’re making your own feckin’ tea.” They were brave to risk knocking at the hall door, not sure of the response that awaited them. One of the lads told us he would wait until he knew he had backup, watching for the other lad’s car from his kitchen window – never quite courageous enough to risk a solo trip.
When she moved into the nursing home they were “back and forth to Tescos” to buy the right pair of slippers. “She wanted the ones with a high heel but every pair was wrong” they told us. “We must have been up and back to the shops a hundred times” said one. “We must have bought every pair in the place!” said the other. She was lucky to have you, I said.
The whole thing has made me reflect on life and death, on family and friendships, and obligations and responsibilities. By the time this woman was ready to leave the earth, many years after her mind had left her body, she had only a handful of people who knew her, and who were there to wish her farewell. We could see this as a tragedy, but maybe it’s okay. Death is tragic, and unnecessary death is more tragic still. But I believe that in the mystery of death lies the only comfort we can glean. Death is the most unknowable, unfathomable aspect of life. That a person is here one moment and gone the next is truly, heart-wrenchingly tragic. That a person can live until 98, only mentally present until 92, is perplexing when babies die, when lives end in unnecessary wars, and when disease takes parents from children and children from parents.
The value of a life cannot be determined by the size of a funeral, or the number of people who mourn, or indeed the length of the life itself. My great aunt’s life was worth something to the eclectic group gathered in a funeral home in rural Ireland. But it was worth more in a cosmic sense, where (I like to think) every life is worth the same. Another of life’s great and beautiful mysteries.