My Uncle's was the first funeral I ever had to go to. That made it worse. I always got on well with Uncle Harry. He always made a lot of fuss of me and my brother when we were kids, taking us out for treats or baby-sitting when Mum and Dad were away. He didn't have any children of his own. When we were older he used to tell us stories - about when he and Dad were kids together, and about what happened in the war. More recently, the four of us used to occasionally go out for a drink together: I seemed to share his sense of humour more than Dad did. I couldn't help feeling sad that he had died, even though he was quite young.
We turned up at his house at lunchtime. I couldn't stop myself from thinking that he was going to be there to greet us, to say something Uncle-ish and maybe open a can of ale. But, of course, it was Aunty Julie who opened the door. She naturally looked pretty distraught and was scared to death of the funeral. Everyone tried their best to cheer her up: Mum even said she didn't have to go through with it if she didn't want to.
The undertakers were wonderful. It's a pretty rotten job that they have, and they do their best. They turned up exactly on time, and knocked very politely on the door, and said it was time to go but there was no hurry for a few minutes, and reminded us to bring a door key, and were especially kind to Aunty Julie.
They drive you at about five miles an hour to the end of your road, with one of their men walking in front of the black limousine, making sure there are no other cars coming. Once they get off your street they speed up a little, but you still don't go much above twenty on your way to the crematorium. I wish they could have done it quicker. I felt hot and uncomfortable in my black suit and black tie. Aunty Julie's face was white as a sheet the whole way there. Dad kept putting his hand on her shoulder and saying reassuring things, whispering how proud we all were of her, how proud Harry would have been. I must say that I was quite proud of Dad because everybody knew that he didn't much like Aunty Julie. He thought that she'd driven a wedge between him and his brother.
We eventually got to the crematorium, and got out of the limousine and formed up in an awkward rabble outside the chapel. Because there weren't all that many of us, the undertaker suggested that we all walked in as a group behind the coffin, which made things easier. They put the coffin on a sort of metal rack at the front, so everyone could see it. I'm glad to say it was a screwed-down coffin so we didn't have to see Uncle Harry's body or anything horrible like that. The priest wasn't anyone who knew Harry but he'd taken the trouble to find out a bit about him. He made a very nice speech, considering, mainly about the war. He kept on emphasising how many people Harry had killed, and how we shouldn't be too sad that he had died.
After that was finished, the undertakers picked up the coffin again and took it outside, and we all followed, very solemnly. I was shivering - it was quite cold - but I was also half looking forward to seeing what would happen
The field was surrounded by a discrete hedge, maybe ten feet high. One of the undertakers or the priest must have had the key to the gate: at any rate, it was open well before we got to it. There were four platforms in the field: one for us, two for the services that were happening later that afternoon, and the remains of one that must have been from a funeral that had happened that morning. It was still smouldering. The main thing that surprised me was how functional it was: when you see big state funerals on telly, the platforms are always hung with expensive black cloth. This one was made of rough orange-box wood. They'd piled up wood all around the platform: some leafy branches on top to make it look nice, but mostly just cheap off cuts from the timber yard. I've heard that they use same firelighters you have at barbecues, or that there is some sort of gas supply underneath. Maybe they just douse it in petrol: it certainly burns quicker than you'd expect.
The undertakers carried the coffin up the little ladder, and put it gently on top of the platform. There was a little lectern in the field, on a concrete base, and the priest stood there and read out the last few words of the funeral service. When he had finished speaking, he pulled some sort of lever or switch, and some really awful taped trumpet music started playing, and there was a "whoosh" sound as the whole platform caught light. Considering how functional the rest of it had been, I was surprised how just how spectacular it was. Quite hot too: Mum and my brother took a couple of steps back, and the rest of us started fanning ourselves with our Orders of Service.
The priest came down from the lectern, and went straight up to Aunty Julie and shook her hand and said something sympathetic. It seemed to help; she forced a little smile. Then, helped by the two undertakers, she climbed the ladder and stood on the edge of the platform, with her back to us. God knows how the undertakers could stand so close, I suppose they must be used to it.
I'm pretty sure that I saw one of them give Aunty Julie a gentle shove, like you might to encourage a kid to jump into the swimming pool. Mum thought she did it by herself. At any rate, she fell forwards onto the fire, and almost immediately the priest turned up the trumpet music really, really loud.
We all turned around and filed out of the field, and one of the undertakers locked the gate behind us. The priest only stayed for a couple of minutes: I think he probably had another service to do straight away. As we were leaving I could see the smoke still rising from behind the hedge.
And that was that. We had a look at the flowers, and chatted with a few relatives, and then got into the black limousine and were driven back to the house, where we ate the tea that Aunty Julie had prepared beforehand.