“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?
Doesn’t that make life a story?”
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
At age 17, I went to a memorial service for my Latin teacher who had died of cancer at a relatively young age, but never had I been to a funeral. The funeral was for my father-in-law’s cousin – the last of his father’s generation though far younger than his own father. Kenneth Pridham died at age 93. He attended our wedding and I’d seen him fairly regularly at lunches with my in-laws. In my limited times with him I had begun to get to know a somewhat fragile, quietly-spoken, tall elderly man who enjoyed discussing history, politics and current events, who had a lively sense of humour and loved cheese, but didn’t eat much lunch.
It’s a strange askew perspective one has of a person when one has known them only one extreme end of their life – old or young. Cue the great aunty who addresses your adult self with: “When I last saw you, you were just knee-high with ice-cream all over your face. Now look at you – I would hardly have recognised you!”
The funeral contained what I’m sure were all the usual things: the sprawling graveyard situated high on Putney Vale with eternal views for miles and miles around; tall trees with years of uninterrupted growth swaying and creaking in the wind; the grey overcast sky sympathising with the sombre mood of the mourners, some of which had reunited for this occasion after many years of never having seen one another; the black cars and lavish floral tributes; the funeral director at the organ and a small trail of people in black taking their seats on hard wooden pews in a small stone chapel. This met with all of my expectations.
The unexpected part was the story of a life well lived.
Actor, John Hannah, as Matthew in Four Weddings and a Funeral, eulogises:
(in a broad Scottish accent)
Garreth used to prefer funerals to weddings. He said it was easier to get enthusiastic about a ceremony one had an outside chance of eventually being involved in…
‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come’.
(Quoting a much loved funeral poem by W.H. Auden)
The story of a life well lived is not something that I doubted about Kenneth, but hearing that story at the funeral had a profound effect on me. The coffin on display hardly seemed big enough for his tall frame and what I wondered that morning, was how can a whole full life fit into that single wooden box? The bravery of a man who fought in WW2, who served his country and loved his wife (and lost her), who became the British ambassador to Poland from 1978–1981, who learnt to speak Polish, who played for hours with his niece and nephew, who travelled the world, who read law, who laughed, cried and worked hard – a sometimes headstrong, oftentimes generous, life fully lived.
When I walk on the cobbled streets of London and think of those who have walked before me, read a classic novel, visit an ancient ruin or look at a picture of my grandmother I realise that the stories of our lives and the lives of those we love, somehow achieve a kind of limited immortality which in ways we can never realise may one day – hopefully – encourage others.