Salisbury – a very English funeral
My aunt Pauline Catherine Adlam was born on 1st May 1927 and died on 12 July 2017. She was 90 years old. On 11 August her funeral service took place at the Chapel in Salisbury’s Crematorium.
She was my only aunt and we got on very well together. Over the course of my life I did not see her very often but, for reasons unclear, she and I always found humour in the ordinary events of life; and, although, for her, life was a serious enough business, she had a great sense of the absurd. Her daughter, my cousin Nicola, had determined the nature of her funeral service and she had invited me to say one or two words about aunt Pauline either during the service or afterwards at the post-service reception in an hotel in Salisbury. We decided that I would not speak during the service but subsequently in the hotel. (What should I say? I’ll come to that in a moment.)
At 1 p.m. on 11 August my wife, brother and I set off from Farnham in Surrey for the funeral In Salisbury, Wiltshire. (In fact, I had to drive like the wind because we were held up by road works and traffic jams.) But we made it to the Chapel moments after the order of service had begun. As we entered the music playing was ‘English’ – it was Elgar’s Nimrod from Enigma Variations.
Then the service unfolded. As it did it underlined the defined Englishness of both my aunt and the city of Salisbury:
The first hymn was the 1906 English Hymnal Version of John Bunyan’s ‘To be a pilgrim‘ – then a reading of Wendy Bradley’s poem ‘God looked around his garden.’ My aunt’s character and values were then profiled by her cousin Clive Adlam and her daughter Nicola. Clive – who is now well over 90 years of age – told us of her very early years in Salisbury and how she was, in a sense, wedded to the city and its proud heritage. He spoke using a style of story-telling that is plain, simple, personal, anecdotal and without affectation. It’s not a style of speaking that, nowadays, we hear very often. (We learned for example, that Pauline taught herself to tap dance and then put on a show for her friends and relations using a makeshift stage. The audience was charged a penny or so for this long-ago show.)
Her daughter Nicola spoke of her mother’s love of fashion and good clothes and how she was well-known in the department stores and other good-quality retailers in Salisbury. She told us about her mother’s love, too, of animals – especially stray dogs and cats – and how she had taken a baby hedgehog to the protection of a vet so that it might survive the oncoming winter. She spoke of her mother’s amazing breadth of general knowledge as well as her more radical political views.
Both Clive and Nicola introduced lots of charm and humour, irony and wit into their ‘memories of Pauline’. I think that’s very English.
We were reminded too, during the service, of our Uncle Tom Adlam who had won the Victoria Cross for extreme bravery during the war and how he continues to be honoured in the cathedral city of Salisbury.
We then heard two more poems, one by Mary Lee Hall, opening with ‘If I should die and leave you here awhile be not like others sore undone who keep long vigil …’, and then Mary Elizabeth Frye’s ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’. We were, in effect, enjoined not to feel sorrow but to appreciate a life that, despite hardships and disappointments, was a life well-lived. I think that’s very English too.
And then perhaps the most English of all Englishness came at the culmination of the service with the hymn ‘Jerusalem‘ followed by the almost crystalline spiritual beauty of Vaughan William’s composition, the ‘Lark ascending.’
Of course there were a few tears during the service – but not many.
Afterwards, in the reassuring surroundings of an hotel in Salisbury, the traditions of the English continued: We even had tea with scones. The mood was one of happy reflective sobriety. Cousin Nicola then invited me to speak. I had prepared an intermittently rhyming poem that took as its inspiration the wonderful and famous work by Jenny Joseph entitled: ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.’ I imagined some of the things my aunt would wish to do both in this world and the next. It’s not easy reading one’s own poem (and hoping not to stumble over the words …) – but this is what I said:
‘When I pass over to the other side – I’ll shake things up – well, just a bit. (Or more)
I’ll spend my pension on Courvoisier and truffles – and splendid Tutti Frutti gelatos.
I’ll style myself – like Audrey Hepburn – and drive an orange Maserati –
And get a dragon tattoo …
And have a ‘tea and toast’ stall at Glasto – and sing with Chic – ‘C’est chic’ – and duet with Jonny Depp.
I’ll have a band – with a drummer named Hercule Poirot.
I’ll do the Generation game with my nephew Christopher
And banter – back and forth with Brucie.
I’ll even do a twirl or two.
They’ll be free parking in Salisbury.
And we’d light up the cathedral spire – and broadcast slogans –
like ‘America first, Salisbury second’, or ‘Trump and May – just go away‘ (or worse).
I’d make an app to teach cats how to Miaow in Harmony,
I’d restore that nice policeman to his beat
And give knighthoods to firemen and women – and nurses and paramedics
And make a potion just to spread celebrity amnesia.
(Actually, people would remember their manners !)
I’ll have a blog – ‘Pauline’s Planet’ – and learn to hack –
– And then send rockets haywire and turn the traffic lights purple – on Fridays.
And then ….
I’d go on heaven’s ‘Love island’ and meet a man called Arthur Frost.
We’d win of course.
And live my life with him again – and always, too, with good old Nick.
Yes, when I pass over to the other side – I’ll will to make things better.
And even if this old world has gone to hell in a hand basket –
We’d all laugh – and always more than thirteen times a day.
Yes, when I pass over to the other side – I’m not so far away.
Remember me and beam and smile – if only for a while.’
Thankfully it was well received. (And my cousin Nicola wanted to have a copy.)
Footnote: My aunt was married to Arthur Frost. It was a very successful marriage. And sometimes she referred to her daughter as ‘good old Nick.’