We buried my father on July 26, a gloriously sunny day so hot that we were worried about lack of shade for the elderly congregation and more worried about the guardsmen in their thick red tunics and bearskins.
My father was 91 when he died. He’d served in the army for most of his life before becoming an author, writing successful military history and biographies, novels and an excellent memoir, which gave snapshots of the people and events that had shaped him.
On the morning of his funeral, when my family were gathered in our kitchen, my children wearing black for the first time, the telephone rang. It was a fellow parent from my daughter’s school, ringing to tell us that Kadian, the 14-year-old brother of one of my daughter’s best friends, had been killed in a cycling accident. Even as I type this now, the shock reasserts itself and, somehow, these two events have, for me, become linked forever.
Kadian was the sort of boy who made a firm impression on a first meeting, however fleeting. I barely knew him, had only met his parents through arrangements about birthday parties and collection times. The shock was one felt by any human for another over a loss as cruel and senseless as any imaginable.
Two hours later, we were sitting in the front pews of a full village church listening to Londonderry Air and waiting for my father’s coffin to be carried in by eight Grenadier Guards. Their boots echoed on the stone floor, no music, painfully slow it seemed to me. Apart from insisting on being carried out to The Eton Boating Song, Dad hadn’t left many instructions.
It was left to all of us to come up with a suitable service and we spent hours discussing it who should read, what should they read, did he like this hymn? My sister wanted Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, my mother Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day (‘rather Christmassy,’ said Tim Horton, the director of music at The Guards Chapel, ‘but why not?’).
Poems went in and came out, we wondered whether to have all the grandchildren relate a one-line memory, all 15 of them. ‘Will we look like The Sound of Music?’ asked my 17-year-old daughter. Dad was conventional, patriotic (he loved The Queen almost more than he loved my mother), intellectual and modest. The service had to reflect him.
Eleven weeks later, I went to the celebration of Kadian’s life. He had loved wildlife, had an eye for it, loved his dog as much as my father had loved The Queen. This service was packed with more than 300 children, parents, teachers, everyone who’d been touched by a boy they hadn’t known for long.
Kadian’s parents had a tougher job than we did. How do you explain your grief, celebrate your son’s life, try to find hope for the future, stay strong for your remaining child? In some extra-ordinary way, they did all these things.
Kadian’s friends had made films, the school choir sang Coldplay, his own YouTube films made us laugh, his parents had written truthful and moving accounts of their love and loss, which were read by cousins who only just managed to get through with a lot of breathing. We were each given a tin with a packet of wild seeds to sow somewhere in the future, cards to remind us of the things he’d already achieved.
I’d seen Kadian’s parents in the week before the celebration. They tried to explain what they wanted, having dedicated hours and hours to its meticulous planning, admitting that this had been hugely therapeutic. I think I felt a little worried; perhaps I thought that mourning and memories had to have formality and the stamp of religion-to make them enduring. I could not have been more wrong.
The wildflower seeds in Kadian’s box of memories and the Scots Guards piper at my father’s grave came from different centuries, but each perfectly reflected the lives they were celebrating. I learnt that being truthful to that person is the only thing that matters.
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