29 July 2006

A Fine Funeral

I left Berkeley late Tuesday night, landed in New York Wednesday morning, had a brief nap until about noon, went to the gym, then took a late-afternoon walk around Lower Manhattan (and I mean that almost literally) with Aaron Cometbus that stretched well into the night. That brings us to Thursday morning, when I rearranged the things in the suitcase I hadn't bothered to unpack - wait, that's not true; Thursday morning I went to the gym and then squandered the next few hours faffing about on the internet until it was time to leave for the airport in mid-afternoon. Then I started thinking about repacking my suitcase and ended up deciding to leave it pretty much as it was, caught the train to JFK, and was on my way again.

Landed in London at about 6:30 am, breezed through customs (nothing like "I'm attending a funeral" to dampen a customs officer's enthusiasm for further enquiries), and was flopped out on my bed by shortly after 8, which left me almost three hours to sleep before people started arriving. It was a hot and sunny day - apparently it's been that way pretty much all summer - so what might have been my appropriately funereal ensemble of black on black was not the most inspired choice, especially since most of the mourners honoured Olivia's memory by dressing in her sort of colours, i.e., bright. We crawled down the traffic-snarled Harrow Road in a cross between a limo and a hearse, following closely behind the actual hearse so that we had a clear view of the nut-brown coffin resting under a voluminous spray of what looked to my untutored eye like Easter lilies. An old geezer sitting at a rickety table outside one of the greasy cafes raised his hat as we passed, but didn't feel it necessary to interrupt his conversation or even glance more than momentarily in our direction.

It's only about a mile to Kensal Green Cemetery, but it seemed to take us half the day to get there. Not that any of us were in any particular hurry. When we arrived we found a small knot of people waiting, a few more turned up in the nick of time - literally dashing across the hallowed grounds and lucky not to trip over a misplaced gravestone - and still others didn't turn up until it was all over, muttering about traffic jams, dodgy maps, incorrectly labelled buses and idiotic minicab drivers. I guess there were about 20 of us in all, and we gathered in the stately but not visibly religious crematorium. Olivia had demanded many times that no minister or God-botherer be allowed near her funeral, so we had some fellow from the Humanist Society, who told a couple jokes, read a poem, and told stories about Olivia, whom he'd never met, to those of us who'd either been a part of the stories in the first place or had heard her tell and retell them in ever-greater detail through many gin-fuelled nights. Nevertheless, the man was good at what he did, and deserves whatever he got for it.

We had music: Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" at the beginning, Edith Piaf's "Non, Je ne Regrette Rien" in the middle, and Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In the Wind" for the finale. I'd never been to a cremation before, and - I hate to admit it - was rather anticipating seeing the coffin disappear into the fiery maw of oblivion. However, that's apparently not how it works; the conveyor belt starts up, two doors swing open up, and the coffin disappears through them, but they didn't close quickly enough to stop us noticing that there were no flames, no further action at all, in fact, on the business side of those doors. The coffin simply came to a halt and sat there, presumably to be dealt with later. I didn't say anything at the time, but I later heard someone else complaining about the lack of fiery action, so I don't feel so bad now about expressing my own disappointment.

This may sound a bit callous or unfeeling, but you'd have to know Olivia and the sort of friends that she gathered round her to understand how little reverence she or they were likely to express toward death or its attendant ceremonies. For years, before finally being convinced that it was not only illegal, but simply wouldn't work, she had insisted that when she died we should haul her body out onto the street, prop it up against a lamp post, and hang a sign around her neck instructing, "Please take this old rubbish away." Despite being militantly anti-religious and essentially an atheist, she did believe in an all-pervasive life force (I tried many times to explain to her about Star Wars, but to no avail) and felt confident the raw material of both her body and soul would be recycled or otherwise put to good use. And she was determined above all that there be no long faces at her passing; that it should instead be an ideal excuse for a party.

Olivia was partial to gin - not just partial; she was wholly in thrall to it, and had been since at least the 1930s - and she was particularly fond of Tanqueray Export Strength, which is difficult to find in the UK, and prohibitively expensive (well, to a working class girl whose first job paid the munificent sum of 15 shillings (75p) a week it certainly seemed that way). So I'd long been in the habit of bringing her a duty-free litre every time I came back from the States. Preparing for this trip, I thought, "That'll be a pleasant change, not having to lug that bottle through two airports," but at the last minute decided to buy it anyway so her friends and family could toast her memory with her favourite tipple.

I needn't have bothered; Olivia had left behind a fair stash of Gordon's, her second favourite, and the ensuing chaos reminded me of the time I wrecked a performance of San Francisco's Angels of Light by dosing them all with acid just before they went on stage. Olivia's friends could not even charitably be described as moderate drinkers, and unlike Olivia, seldom saw a reason to exercise restraint when imbibing. You drank until there was no more booze in the house, and then you organised a whip-round to send out for more.

Which is more or less what happened at the post-cremation wake. Considerably more people turned up than had been there for the main event, and if anyone besides myself wasn't drinking, he or she did a good job of making themselves invisible. There was a large and steady cloud of smoke arising from the corner where the Jamaicans and their admirers had gathered, the rail-thin Sri Lankan girls perched on the edge of the bed nervously fingering their wine glasses, and the various hippies and queens shrieked, screeched and bellowed through the afternoon and into the early evening. Marvellously enough, no one fell down, at least not that I noticed.

From the time it was decided to move the party on to an open-air jazz concert in Ealing to the final exit (and re-entry and re-exit, etc., repeat as necessary) of the last of the staggering guests (the phrase "herding cats" took on new meaning for me) at least an hour or two had passed, and I decided to pass up this expedition in favour of some sleep. Which was probably just as well; according to this morning's post-mortem (possibly not the best choice of words, but it's late and I have no others readily on tap) it took the assembled masses one full hour to reach the nearest Tube station (approximately 500 feet away, if that) and another hour or two finding and half-demolishing a restaurant in Hammersmith. Somewhere in there was a potential riot involving one or possibly two arrests, though apparently relented when they were finally convinced that yes, this was indeed a funeral party. Bear in mind that if you remove the token handful of youngish (30s/early 40s) people, the average age of this crowd of roisterers was probably in the early-to-mid 60s.

Nevertheless, I can't imagine that Olivia, who herself had been known to fancy a brawl or mini-riot to top off a night on the tiles, would have wanted it any other way. She lived her life just as she wanted, died pretty much when and how she had always planned, and instigated a raucous knees-up to mark her passing. All in all, I can almost hear her explaining to any random life forces that happen to cross her path, not a bad life's work, not bad at all.

P.S. Lest I forget, the cremation and wake were really only a rehearsal for the real memorial service, which will involve transporting her ashes and all her lunatic friends via bus or armoured personnel carrier to their final resting place (the ashes, that is, not the friends) in Bedfordshire, and the subsequent drinking dry (strictly according to Olivia's wishes) of the local village pub. Fortunately there's a month or two to rest up before that one rolls around.


Jim Testa said...

Although I never met the woman, I can tell that I would have loved Aunt Olivia. They don't make 'em like that anymore.

Wesley said...

Sounds like a fitting send-off. I'd like to think when I kick off that my sexagenerian friends will be getting arrested at my wake.

Tell me, though, did the many posted signs showing the way to the crematoria actually help? I've never had need of their services, but I guess when you need a crematorium, you really need a crematorium.

Larry Livermore said...

Did the signs do any good? Let's just say that at least half a dozen mourners missed some or all of the ceremony because they weren't able to find the place, but all of them were able to find their way back to the flat - not signposted at all - where the gin was flowing.