Hi all:

Bit of a surreal day today. Went to a funeral which was held in a natural burial place; not a graveyard, but a very beautiful stretch of woodland sloping down to the sea. There are no grave markers, though you can see the mounds for a few years till the soil settles a bit, and as we walked down the path to where the grave was, at first it’s a bit disconcerting, seeing all the mounds under the trees, some more recent and others barely discernible. Most were covered in woodland flowers and undergrowth – not as if they were unkempt, but as if they were being reclaimed by nature.

The coffin was made of wickerwork, and the bouquets were simple cut flowers, no oasis or cellophane. The grave was under the canopy of a most beautiful beech tree, with other trees closely around. I looked up during the service, and was fascinated by the moving mosaic of leaves, layer upon layer of them. The sun glowed through the higher leaves, and now and then there was a blink of blue sky as the branches shifted and whispered in the breeze. It was really lovely, actually, and looking around at the other grave sites, I really liked that slowly, the mounds settle back into the ground and become part of the woodland. They’re tall and proud at the beginning, when you need the marker, but gradually as the sadness of grief fades and the happiness surfaces, the mound also fades and the woodland stops being background to grief, and comes back into focus as a place of peace to sit and be thankful for the good memories.

That really appeals to me. For me, a quiet, sunny space filled with leaf-whisper and the dappling of sun through the leaves is perfect for dealing with grief; not lonely silence, but filled with enough sound and movement to keep your brain occupied while your heart quietly breaks, and quietly mends itself, though it takes a long time.

One of the moments during the service that made me wobble a bit was the readings as they used one – sometimes called “What is dying?” – that we had at my Dad’s funeral. He died last year, just before our wedding. That reading was one I first heard at the funeral of the father of a good friend. It talks of dying as standing on the seashore watching a ship carrying cargo which disappears over the horizon. It’s lovely: have a quick look at the link above (the rest of this blog will make a lot more sense if you do!)

I loved it. I sent it home to my parents as my mum plays the organ at a lot of funerals and my Dad’s choir used to sing at them, so it’s always useful to know these things in case the family are having trouble finding something relevant. My Dad had always loved sailing and the sea, so he really liked the reading too. It always makes me think of him, and certainly it did today. I miss him, the old bugger. I found myself standing at the funeral for one person and crying for another, which was also weird. 
My Dad found school very difficult as a child, and that included reading. He said once that he read maybe five books from the time he was a teen to that point (his early seventies, maybe?) But at that point we went on a mission to get him reading. I had persuaded my Mum to read Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice. She didn’t like fantasy until she read Hobb and discovered it wasn’t like she had thought, and she was sure that my Dad would enjoy it too, but he was an awkward one and not necessarily inclined to oblige. So we left it on the table, slightly in the way. When he came in, he looked at it and read the blurb and said “What’s this?”

“Oh, sorry, is that in your way?” I  moved it onto the side. “It’s the book I just finished reading.”

“Is it good?” 

I shrugged. “I think it’s epically good,” I told him, and went off  burbling about it being really exciting and gripping and all the stuff I thought might appeal. “But you wouldn’t like it.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I know you’re not right bothered. Anyhow I lent it to Mum and she loved it so I’m going to see if (my sister) wants to read it.”

I left it at that and wandered off, and sure enough when I went back into the kitchen a couple of hours later it had mysteriously gone. He loved the book, of course, and was up till all hours reading it several nights in a row. Less than a week later I caught him sneaking into the other room to see if he could find the second one in the bookshelf… and he did read the whole trilogy. 

After that, there was a rather lovely thing where he would come and ask my Mum rather hesitantly what she thought he might like next. Mum, having been a school teacher, is pretty good at judging that sort of thing, and he went from kids books like Stig of the Dump, which he loved, to James Herriot and Nevill Shute, and by the time of his death he was part way through Oliver Twist. To me, that is just the most amazing thing, to suddenly discover the joy of words so late in life, and I’m so proud that he stuck with it all the way up to Dickens (I know the classics can be a bit Marmite, but I love Dickens’ use of words, so it’s amazing to be able to share that enjoyment with someone discovering it for the first time). I am so proud and pleased that he did start, and kept going nearly to the end of his life, when his Parkinson’s intervened. He gained so much pleasure from it until then; I love that that was a gift we were able to give him. It feels like a real privilege.

I don’t think he ever read any of my books apart from one short story, The Black-Eyed Susan, which had a sailing ship in it. He  really liked it and wanted to read Song of the Ice Lord after, as it also involves ships and war, which were two things he was quite interested in, but sadly his illness intervened and he never got that far. Whether he would have enjoyed it or not I can’t tell you, but I think he would have liked the shipspirits.

What are the shipspirits? In Song, the warrior/sailor tribes that make up the Skral people have a complex relationship with their ships, to which they attribute a sort of benificent awareness, and when each ship becomes too old to repair, the tribe haul them to a very secret and sacred place, the ships’ graveyard, where they are laid to rest in honour. Maran and Lodden, a bard and a engineer of sorts, travel across the island where Maran’s people live. Lodden, who comes from a far country, is awed to see the row upon row of ships along the hillside, the older ones crumbling into flat, shapeless mounds while the newer ones stand high and stark.

…Sound familiar? 

As I looked around the burial ground today, with the grave-mounds unmarked and settling into the earth, it felt as if someone had taken the pictures in my head and made it real, just on a smaller scale (and with less snow!). That’s why it was doubly eerie when they started reading the poem; Song is dedicated to my friend’s father, at whose funeral I first heard the poem that gave me the idea of the shipspirits- but that poem, the poem at my Dad’s funeral, was the very same one they read today.

Today, the combination of the burial site and the reading made me shiver, though not in a bad way.  Song of the Ice Lord is about grief and loss, but it is also about coming to terms with losing the people you love, and understanding that while we remember them with love, they never really leave us. 
I will leave you with the last part of the poem in the version we heard today, as the soul-ship disappears over the horizon and is lost to sight:

And just at the moment when someone at my side says

“She is gone!”

there are other eyes watching her coming,

and other voices ready to take up the glad shout

“She is here at last!” 
Take care, all.

JAC.

– – –

NB Song of the Ice Lord is quite randomly on a 99c deal at the moment, if you’re interested. Oddly enough, we organised it weeks ago before there was any question of a funeral at all. Synchronicity is a weird, weird, thing.

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