Three Mournings

I was living in Los Angeles when Ronald Reagan died.

The body was lying in repose in the Presidential Library in Simi Valley, just to the north-west of LA, so I went to see it. I thought: I’ll probably never get the chance to pay my respects to such a historical figure again, so I should go there while I can.

The drive took about an hour, and after parking up I stood in a line for several more hours. Eventually we were shuttled into a bus, from whence we joined another line until we came to a little room in which we saw the casket.

Some people cried as they walked past. Some sniffed and held back their tears. Some looked at their lovers or children, and held them tight. Most looked serious, thinking hard about what this man and his life had meant to them.

There wasn’t supposed to be any stopping but I asked the guard at the exit if I could stay there in silence for a couple of minutes to pay my respects and he said yes.

So I stood there in silence, contemplating mortality, before moving on.

A hundred thousand of us, standing in line to look at a man in a box. And that’s all we are, when our lives finally draw to a close. People in boxes, for a short time. Another collection of atoms, no longer animated, soon to be parted from each other for ever. And what remains of the things we have done in this life are the memories of those who we’ve touched, the words written about us after we’re gone, and the ideas that we’ve passed on to others.

Last week, I went to Nanna’s interment. As I expected, the Christmas of 2011 was the last that we spent together. She was cremated shortly after she died, and on Monday we put her ashes in the ground at last.

We got her a plaque for five years in a suburban cemetery close to where she used to live. They don’t sell you the space in a public cemetery. Instead, you rent it for a certain number of years, and then (unless you want to pay more at that point to keep it up for longer) they give you the plaque to take home and do with what you will. And then they replace your notice of remembrance with some other mother’s, daughter’s, grandmother’s, lover’s, sister’s, wife’s.

About a dozen of us were there when the ashes were poured into a small hole in the ground.

It was also the day that Margaret Thatcher died. Most of us found out at the wake.

Today was Baroness Thatcher’s funeral. It was a much bigger affair than Nanna’s. She was carried up Whitehall in a gun carriage. Her Majesty the Queen attended. The only real difference between it and a state funeral was that everyone would have got the day off for a state funeral. The funeral cost an estimated 10 million pounds, almost all of which was met by the taxpayer.

We paid for Nanna’s funeral ourselves, from the estate.

I didn’t feel the need to go to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. But I have spent some time reflecting on her death. When she came to power, the Unions were indeed overpowerful. But then came the madness.

Poverty in the UK became higher.

Distribution of wealth became more unequal.

The nation’s social housing stock was sold and not replaced, resulting in a housing bubble that has blocked many young people from owning their own houses for more than a decade and is set to get much worse.

I thought about this as the preparations for Baroness Thatcher’s funeral continued. About her life, and her death, and the legacy she has left us all.

Funerals are for the living, the us, the left-behind. A funeral marks a transition between life and death, but not for the person who is gone. They don’t care. They don’t come back.

Many years ago there used to be a tradition in this country called Rough Music. A ritual humiliation for those who have violated the standards of the community. No physical harm was done, but a message was sent that what they had done was wrong. A banging of pots, a shaking of pans, a rattling and a shouting and a caterwauling and a making of noise to let the wrongdoer know that They. Have. Done. Wrong.

The funeral for Baroness Thatcher began at 11am today. The people there were silent in their respect for the dead, and I would not take that away from them. I took no pleasure in the death of an old woman, and her family and friends deserve the time to pay their respects, and be alone with their grief. A funeral service is a time for quiet reflection and for mourning the dead.

But she did wrong. Not to one, or to several, but to many. A grievous wrong and one which has yet to be put right. Wrong to the people of this still-United Kingdom, and wrong to the country itself. Not to admit that would be to ignore the totality of the person.

At two minutes to eleven, I took a pot and saucepan into my garden and began to bang on it.

I didn’t hear anyone else make rough music to mark her passing. That doesn’t matter. I didn’t go to make a noise for her, or for her policies, or for the state of the country today. But because a funeral is a time for reflection upon the deeds and character of the dead by the living, I did it for me.

So I stood there in noise, contemplating mortality, before moving on.

2 responses to “Three Mournings”

  1. I am late saying this, but thank you, Piers. Your rough music was indeed fitting. (I had not heard of that custom before, so thank you for the information.)

    And I am very sorry for your loss of your Nanna.

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