The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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