Last week my father-in-law died. John Poppy. Ninety eight. A benign patriarch, a hero from another age, an East End boy made good, who never let hardship trump kindness. He had a good death, if there is such a thing. We watched him go gently – no tranquillisers, no morphine, no gnashers, Twiglet-limbed – while his daughters and grandchildren trilled a rather transcendent You Are My Sunshine.
Well, it's all right for him. We are left missing him in the modern world and it is rubbish to mourn in. It doesn't quite get death. We leave the deathbed and get a car park fine: £2.70. We wander zonked into Marks & Spencer and the checkout girl asks Jill how she is feeling today. It's no one's fault. Perhaps Jill should have been issued with a badge – "Dad Just Dead" or "Recently Bereaved!" Maybe the Victorians had it right with their long black veils and Tennyson.
The whole après death stuff is a real slog. You lurch between blubbing and mirth. You enter a world of grief technicians, a sort of Joe Orton farce that keeps collapsing into kitsch. The bereavement counsellor with her conspicuous, perky tissues, the registrar of death with her voice so hushed that half-deaf Jill just kept barking, "Pardon". And, of course, the undertakers, those modern Tulkinghorns with their black top hats and hangman visages, and their lugubrious henchmen with their scars and cropped bonces, who might well be in the death trade in more ways than one.
There is the high farce – and cost – of flagging up grief. The coffin? Would Jill be plumping for the mahogany or the slightly more grieving oak? Flowers? Would she be opting for the "oasis spray" or the more formal – and expensive – wreath? How about some not so cheap theatrics? A dove perhaps? Released with suitable lachrymosity by a perma-tanned blonde – a grim weeper? – into gunmetal skies? Does it fly back? Or ascend with her father to lands of milk and honey? Would a crow perhaps be cheaper?
Jill kept hearing her dad's voice.
"They see you coming, girl!"
So she went cheapskate.
Then there's the pall-bearing. Would I like to do some? With my high blood pressure and housemaid's knee? I rather thought that was their gig. I could keel over with a cardiac and drop my father-in-law in the aisles. My daughters would not be amused. Grandad was the father I could never be.
But some things are beyond a joke.
The corpse. You have to dress it. You have to fit it out in some final apparel. I don't recall doing this for my parents. Mother may have gone under in her French resistance beret number, but in little else. Father was wrapped in mere winding sheets when I last saw him.
Is there now a dress code for meeting the maker? It makes sense, I suppose. A sort of last audition.
All right, let's celebrate him. He must look good. He was always a sharp dresser. His generation always made an effort when they went out. He'd always said he wanted to look like Fred Astaire "dancing on light". Well, he was really going out this time, hopefully into rather a lot of light. We must scrub him up well for Mr Death.
So what's left in his wardrobe? We ransack bin bags from the care home. What a glum caper! There are just a few drab tweeds and frumpy shirts and fusty woollies and institution slippers. Empty. Finished. Disembodied – and not always his.
"That's not him. That's not who he was," says Jill.
She reminds us of how he was in his pomp. We gaze at photos. There he is in that sharp suit and flash waistcoat, standing at the snooker table with a Hamlet cigar, one of his few luxuries. There he is in a demob RAF suit with severe, parted Brylcreemed hair and ramrod stance and those big bird's-egg blue eyes.
"He looks like Burt Lancaster or Gary Cooper in High Noon," observes my daughter Anna. "Sorting out the Baddies." Indeed. She visits his childhood haunts in the East End, especially Eton Manor – now the Crown and Manor – boxing club.
"It saved my life!" he used to say.
It did too. He never forgot it. He relished telling us about those days, with the cigar and Max Miller voice. He was too tiny as a tot. He was Dickens skinny. A nipper. Poor, but honest. Undernourished. No orange juice in those days. But mother made him eat the greens, so he never got the rickets. But he did get the diphtheria and it nearly did for him.
He was rushed to hospital.
When his mother collected him, a neighbour stopped them.
"Mrs Poppy, is that your Johnny? Isn't he thin?"
His mother looked at his short trousers and pipe-cleaner legs.
"Yes, he is thin – but he is very wiry."
She piled on the greens and pies. To little avail. He was still too weak. He still kept getting beaten up by the local lads. So his dad marched him down to Mildmay Street and enrolled him in the boxing club, where the barbells and punchbags and push-ups and running gave him muscles and discipline and grace under pressure and the legendary "Poppy spirit". He was soon over five stone and a pretty nippy flyweight. He was getting tougher and stronger. So tough that he could join the RAF in the second world war and become a PE trainer. He had talent and took courses and became a fabulous teacher in primary and secondary schools. He had a natural empathy with the lost and lonely and taught tough nuts to read. He had left school at 14 and had acquired much wisdom.
"Never underestimate the common man."
"Always do the big thing."
"Never be envious."
Who needs Socrates or Montaigne?
So how about some boxing shorts for the coffin? Perhaps not. Disrespectful. And a bit chilly.
We check out another photo. There he is, doing his standup routine like his hero Jack Benny. Comedy could deal with most eventualities – meeting a potential son-in-law for example. I must have been a cartoon of his worst fears. There he was, patrician fierce – the Gary Cooper of the East End. There I was, a callow fop – the Karl Marx of the home counties with a lot of long poetic hair and unearned opinions, much given to saving the working classes. How could I fit the bill? Could I put up a shelf, change a plug, do a dovetail joint or keep his beautiful daughter in fancy frocks – or get into a boxing ring.
"I've been in the ring!" I told him. "For about 11 seconds."
True – in the Cubs. A complete knockout. We bonded rather well after that, often swapping lines from our favourite comedians. He adored Al Read, Max Miller – and my fave, the immortal WC Fields.
"I had to bury the wife last week – had to – she died!" How we laughed. Well, no more.
Jill finally settles for a summer ensemble. The ice-cream jacket, a swish shirt and matching tie. Sunny. Smiling. Rakish.
That should do it.
Well, apparently not. What's missing? Underwear. Who says? The undertaker. You need the underwear for the underground. And socks. Socks? She zooms back to M&S and gets some daft boxers and woolly warmers – and another happy, shiny checkout girl.
"How are you feeling, today?"
Feeling? How am I feeling today? My dad just died. I feel like howling at the cold stars and cursing the blind gods! How am I? How do I feel? I am an orphan in the wilderness without my best witness and my champion in this silly, busy world!
"Would you like a bag?"
She returns and lays the clothes across the floor – and stares.
"They don't fit any more! They're the wrong bleedin' size!"
She gazes at them from top to toe.
"He's too thin!"
Those muscles have shrunk back to Twiglets.
"Yes he's thin, but he's wiry …" I drone.
"Oh, just shut up!"
John Poppy had a good funeral, if there is such a thing. Jill gave a splendid speech. She kept hearing her dad's voice again.
"Stand up straight and speak clearly and try not to gabble!"
She did. There was no gabbling or blubbing. The service was lovely and offered the solace of pale Christian consolations. The party afterwards was a fitting celebration, with lots of Poppy girls dancing with much abandon to the Andrew Sisters' I'll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time.
But then, of course, you have to go back into the world. The living world. My goodness, it can be tough going. It just can't do death of kin.
Things keep going daft …
My parents both died within a week. There was no compassionate leave, so I had to go back next day to the teaching gig and an Ofsted visit. Inspector Sidebottom, a nice man, asked how I was.
"Very well, thank you."
Except my entire kin just croaked.
The quotidian can get callous. It can mug you with mawkishness or a ruthless perkiness or blundering innocence. The modern world doesn't seem to do the mystery of death, what poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch calls "the witless horror of mortality". The recently bereaved are drowning, not waving. They shouldn't be allowed out. Jill certainly wants a long time out of circulation.
Maybe we do need a badge, a veil or an armband to flag up the mourning. And rituals – things such as Irish wakes or New Orleans funerals or glum Shivas or Wailing Women or murderous death metal or King Lear or a good howling at the moon or gazing at big waves or a Trappist monastery or the darkest John Donne – or laughing at Jack Benny. Whatever it takes.
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