GORDON KERRY ON BLUE- FOLDER OBSEQUIES
WE cremated my mother’s remains on a bright, cold day last spring. As memorial parks go, hers is quite nice: the Yarra Ranges form a backdrop and nearer to hand vineyards and cow pastures are only slowly being displaced by McMansions. The chapel is inoffensively fake colonial, its chimney very discreet.
Despite having been a devout woman, our mother had — like many people these days — drifted from the church ( though she kept up the good works in a big way) and had asked for a civil ceremony when the time came. So one of my sisters and I duly met the celebrant, a softly spoken man in a black suit, to plan the service. He was kind and solicitous, but my heart sank when he produced a blue folder. We had been through this once before.
Another of my sisters died a few years back and we had engaged another civil celebrant for her funeral. Much of the time, no doubt, celebrants want the families to run things, but find themselves visiting people rendered shellshocked and inarticulate by grief; this woman, however, walked into a house crammed to the rafters with four generations of my opinionated, smart- mouthed family, most of whom had strong views about how this show should go. Strangely though, one of my usually loquacious sisters didn’t feel she could deliver a eulogy, so out came the blue folder.
It was jam- packed with what might loosely be described as poetry, in that the words tended to be strung together in grammatically correct sentences and the lines scanned properly and rhymed. The poetry assured us that that we shouldn’t weep, that the departed will remain with us in our hearts, that roses will continue to bloom and small birds to sing, that we’ll meet again. In other words, it stank. No wonder the versifiers were, without exception, anonymous.
Forewarned, this time I politely waved away the blue folder. Instead, I asked my sister if she would read something by Australian poet Gwen Harwood. This particular poem deals with real feeling, not saccharine sentimentality, and with grief and loss. In elegant honesty it addresses the sometimes difficult relationship between parent and child: ‘‘ Mother who gave life / forgive me the wisdom I could not learn from you . . .’’
Now I’m not saying there’s no place for things of sentimental value on such occasions. At the funeral we all dabbed our eyes as we listened to The Rustle of Spring , a rippling, kitschy piece of piano music that my mother used to play to impress people. It certainly worked on my father’s family back in 1940- something.
More recently she would rattle off a few bars even when she was so stricken with Alzheimer’s that she didn’t know where she, or indeed who I, was. But this off- the- rack poetry worries me.
It’s fair enough that, with declining religious affiliations, people will opt for secular celebrations of their rites of passage; there is, after all, nothing worse than a religious service where the presiding cleric has clearly never clapped eyes on the deceased, nor met the bereaved family, but is obliged to eulogise in the blandest broadest terms. Even there, though, the form of words used in religious funerals has an eloquent music, polished by centuries of use.
Secular events can, and frequently do, have immense dignity and beauty as any number of Anzac Day services will attest, but it is a combination of strong ritual and formal language that ensures this, and reminds us that we are not alone in grief.
Mick Jagger sensed this days after the death of guitarist Brian Jones in 1969, reading Shelley’s elegy, Adonis , at the Rolling Stones’ open- air London concert.
The most memorable moment in director Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral is at Gareth’s funeral, where his lover Matthew reads W. H. Auden’s poem, Funeral Blues : ‘‘ Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone . . .’’
Despite the fact that Auden’s verse is deliberately informal, there wasn’t a dry eye in the cinema when I saw the film.
These poems have huge emotive force precisely because they don’t deal in the commonplaces of the blue folder.
Blue- folder poems contain a watered- down collection of images with a long history, but one only need dip at random into Tennyson’s masterpiece, In Memoriam A. H. H. to see the force they should have: ‘‘ Thy voice is on the rolling air; / I hear it where the waters run; / though standest in the rising sun, / and in the setting thou art fair.’’ Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71 is a message to the bereaved not to remember him if memory causes ‘‘ woe’’; Emily Dickinson’s poem After Great Pain encapsulates the effects of shock in the wake of bereavement; Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d is an elegy for a public figure, Abraham Lincoln, but at the same time expresses a profound, personal reaction.
Of course it’s not only dead white males ( and Dickinson) writing in English who deal powerfully with these themes: the Roman poet Catullus produced one of the greatest elegies, spoken at his brother’s grave, and in contemporary Australia poets continue to reflect those currents of emotion that we will all face at some time.
In addition to Harwood’s, there are wonderful poems by Vincent Buckley, Judith Wright, Peter Steele, Rosemary Dobson and Les Murray ( to name but a few) that illuminate emotions from a variety of angles. I’m always moved by the image of sunrise in John Kinsella’s Tenebrae , ‘‘ despite the coming winter / the darkening seas’’. A loved one’s funeral is a rite of passage for those of us left behind, so why not make use of our great cultural tradition, which gives the most intense expression to our common, human experience?
Nineteenth- century British poet Matthew Arnold famously said that high culture represented ‘‘ the best that has been thought and said in the world’’. I know: patriarchal, hierarchical and oppressive, but I can’t help agreeing.
And our loved ones deserve the best.