Last month, for the fourth time in my life, I travelled from our corner of West London to Southampton for a family funeral. The service took place in the same cemetery chapel as each of the other three. The four departed members of that side of my family are buried close together, a husband and wife in one plot, a son and a grandson in the other. Each funeral has taken place in a different decade: the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and now the 2010s. The following 1500 words reflect on these visits to the south coast.
Last month I travelled down the M3 to Southampton with my sister and a cousin from Ireland, the three of us representing the nine cousins on this side of the family. We discussed how often each of us had made the trip. It was an easy calculation for my cousin: just the once, for the most recent funeral in 2007. My sister had been 10 times or so. Sat in the back of the car all the way there and back (by choice) I reflected on the 20 times or more that I have visited that part of Hampshire.
My first trip was for the first of these family funerals, in the 1980s. A cousin had died in his early 30s. He had been living an alternative lifestyle, in some kind of commune I think (we never got the full story). He had an asthma attack and died. I was away at university and got a message via the Porters Lodge to call home. My mum told me the news. The next morning I was on an early coach down to Victoria in plenty of time to get home and travel to Southampton with my mum and brother. It was a bright sunny day in May.
My wardrobe (I use the term very loosely) contained almost no items of clothing suitable for a funeral. I did at least have one pair of trousers that weren’t jeans (wool, a shade of blue slightly lighter than navy) and a black crew-neck jumper. The jumper had holes in both elbows but I figured I could roll up the sleeves for the day. It didn’t come to that. I borrowed a dark blue jacket of my brother’s. A year earlier he and I had been sharing the same pair of smart black shoes. We planned in advance who might need them next, him in London or me in Cambridge. That was no longer the case. Now we each had a pair of black leather shoes, although my footwear of choice for most of that year was suede, burgundy, with pointy toes, and laces at the side. I borrowed one of my brother’s shirts and my dad’s black tie. I still had a couple of old white shirts from school but they were frayed around the collar and best described as off-white. They wouldn’t do, and nor would the frilly white shirt that my brother and I shared, along with some ex-hire black-tie gear from Moss Bros. Between us we attended four black-tie events over the course of 18 months (3-1 to me) but the shiny dinner jacket and fancy black trousers would have stood out at a funeral even more than a black jumper with holes in both elbows.
We arrived at my Uncle Jimmy’s house just before noon. It was his son, Shaun, who had died. Jimmy poured whiskey for my brother and me, and my mum had a cup of tea. He was the younger of my mum’s two brothers, five years older than her. He was taking care of his grandson, Matthew, aged 10 at the time. Matthew wanted to do exactly what I wanted to do at his age: play football. Before we drove to the cemetery my brother and I had a kickabout with him out in the street. Our smart black shoes were a little less smart by the end of that day.
The second funeral, in 1991, was for young Matthew himself, killed on a motorbike aged 17. It was a cold, wet, miserable February day. We’d had snow that weekend. Our local roads were all iced over but the M3 had been well gritted. I did the driving, in my mum’s Renault 5, with her and her other brother as the passengers. He had flown over from Dublin the day before. He slept in my brother’s old bed, in the room that my brother and I had shared throughout our childhood, and until my brother went to live in Spain. I have never heard anyone snore so loud. The following morning my uncle summarized the effect on his wife: “She’s a martyr to my snoring”.
I no longer had to scrabble around trying to find appropriate clothing for a funeral. I now had a choice of suits, white shirts, black shoes, and a black tie of my own. My dark blue work coat was suitably sombre. That coat still fits me, just about, and has held up remarkably well. I wear it rarely these days. The shoes have been replaced many times over. The suits and shirts have also been replaced many times over, but in larger sizes.
The windscreen wiper fluid in the Renault 5 had frozen. I brought a couple of 2-litre bottles filled with soapy water for the journey, and had to stop twice to rinse the windscreen before we got to Uncle Jimmy’s. All that grit on the roads. There was no football in the street this time, for obvious reasons. There was no heating in the chapel. It felt as cold inside as outside, but at least there was shelter from the sleet. Matthew was buried in the same plot as his first cousin once removed.
Between 1991 and 2006 I travelled to and from Southampton at least a dozen times, alone and with many different sets of passengers: my uncle from Dublin, my mum, my brother and his children on a visit from Spain. In 2002, between Christmas and New Year, seven of us travelled down for the day and a dozen of us sat down to a meal at the local pub, The Woodman,. There were trips to the football (Leeds at the Dell, twice, with a mate from Leeds, and Arsenal at St Mary’s Stadium with my wife), each preceded by a visit to my uncle and a big old feed. The phrase “We’ll just pop in for a cup of tea” was never taken literally.
My last visit to see my uncle, in the summer of 2006, was the only time I went by train. I wanted to have a few beers with him, talk about old times, hear about his and my mum’s childhood in Dublin. The TV was on for part of the time. We had a lengthy discussion about “Deal or no Deal”. I scribbled dozens of pages of notes in a pad on the train home, everything I could remember about our conversation while it was fresh in my mind. That notepad is in a storage box somewhere, but I wouldn’t attempt to decipher my handwriting now. I was disciplined enough to type up all of my notes when I returned home, and the Word document that contains them has been backed up and transferred to every computer I have used in the last 12 years. I read through it again a few weeks ago. No Version Control issues here.
Uncle Jimmy died in 2007, almost exactly 12 years ago. His anniversary is two days from now. For his funeral, another cold February day, though mercifully without the sleet this time, eight of us travelled down in two cars. He had a daughter that none of us had met before. We used to joke that she didn’t really exist, but she was there. She and her husband used to travel a lot. They were away in Australia when her brother died, so hadn’t been able to get back for his funeral. When her nephew Matthew died they were in Indonesia, and again couldn’t get back in time. They now live in Spain and she had been able to see her dad in hospital just before he died, and stay for the funeral. Snow was forecast for that night. We made it back to London just as the first flakes were falling.
The fourth and last of these Southampton funerals, last month, was for my aunt Marge, Jimmy’s widow. My mum, her two brothers and her older sister all moved from Ireland to live in England in the 1940s and 1950s. They all met their future partners here. Marge was the only local girl. My other aunt by marriage (the one who was a martyr to my uncle’s snoring), my dad, and my mum’s sister’s husband were all from Ireland originally. Marge was the longest-lived of 14 brothers and sisters. That generation has now come to an end, as one of her nieces told me. The chapel was even colder than I remembered. I am a few stone heavier than I was in 1991 and rarely feel the cold like I used to, but this was a throwback to the days when I could never get warm.
Jimmy and Marge are buried together, a few plots away from Shaun and Matthew. Jimmy’s local, The Woodman is now a Tesco Metro. I have made my last visit to Jimmy’s old house. And none of my 20 or more trips down to Southampton has involved a family wedding.