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“I can’t go to my grandma’s funeral, but I’ve found my own way to celebrate her life”

The UK lockdown means some of us are faced with the difficult decision not to attend the funeral of a loved one, with funeral attendees currently limited to five to 10 people. Here, one writer who can’t attend her grandma’s funeral explains how she’s dealing with her grief, and celebrating her life, during this time.

When I set foot on my doorstep last Sunday, coaxed outside by the irresistible pull of sunshine on an early April day, I braced myself for mourning the coming spring and summer that might have been.

Already a few streets into my state-sanctioned walk, I reminisced on this time last year – on picnics on Hampstead Heath and the bright call of an Apérol Spritz, the first drink of a long season spent mostly in pub gardens, Royal Parks and the café terraces of my native France. At that moment, I resented the intoxicating smell of barbecues emanating from North West London family homes, resented being cooped up in my small flat, away from my family, my friends and my dog.

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I walked up the hill and, for the first time since isolation began, made it to my local cemetery. I love graveyards at the best of times. I find them peaceful, bursting with stories. 

But in a time like this, when so many of us are confronted with losing our loved ones, and the mad idea of perhaps never seeing them again? It was the calmest I’d felt in weeks. I walked aimlessly through the aisles of gravestones, with no headphones on, just me and the space to consider life and death.

Taphophilia is defined as “a love of funerals, cemeteries and the rituals of death”.

I’m far from alone in my fascination for graveyards and in seeking them out to calm myself and meditate. There’s even a word for it: taphophilia, defined as “a love of funerals, cemeteries and the rituals of death”. The internet is full of self-avowed taphophiles, and the concept is well documented. The author Mary Shelley famously spent much of her time as a young girl at her mother’s graveside in St. Pancras churchyard.

I promise that a graveyard is not the sad, scary place we’re told it is in books and films. It’s a place where the sorrow of loss mingles happily with bountiful love, and the joys of a life well spent. And though it is a place for death, life thrives there, in the daisies and the birdsong.

Later that same Sunday, my grandmother passed away, and so another kind of mourning came to be. She had been ill for many years and, though it is sad, her pain has ended now. I’m grateful that she no longer has to suffer every day, confused and helpless, isolated from her children and grandchildren.

Like the dead in Hampstead Cemetery, like the hundreds of thousands of tragic losses from coronavirus, my grandma will not be remembered for her illness, for the way she was so diminished by her Parkinson’s. She will be remembered for my favourite one-liner, the one that came from the first time she met my dad, her son-in-law. There was some sort of upset at the dinner table. My father sat there, frozen, fork in the air as tears were spilled around him. “Philippe, eat your spaghetti,” my grandma told him.

She will also be remembered for the way her face lit up with a thousand sun beams when one of her 18 grandchildren came into the room, for her strong will and faster wit.

A maximum of 10 people are currently allowed to attend a funeral in the UK (at the time of writing).

This week, on 16 April, my grandmother will be cremated and I won’t be there. At the time of writing, between five and 10 people are allowed to attend the ceremony, though the rules may have changed by then. Priority should go to her five children, and to the family members who live close by. Besides, I wouldn’t want to risk travelling from the highly affected London area to spread the virus in West Yorkshire – by train or in a car with someone from outside my household. It’s hard enough as it is for those who can safely go to decide who gets to.

A reverend will conduct a service in honour of my grandma, pieced together from the words of family and friends, separated by oceans in England, Ireland, France, the Netherlands and America. We can’t mourn together now, but some day we will gather again.

There will be a beautiful celebration of my grandmother’s life once this is all over, where those who loved her will share their favourite memories of her. We will have a great “slap-up” party like the one my grandfather explicitly requested when his time came over three years ago, like the unforgettable parties both of them used to throw for weddings and birthdays.

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In the meantime, I’ll go back to the cemetery. I’ll visit Ahmad Sharegh with the tree shading his grave, Peter “Toots” and Bridget “Birdie” Logan with their wonderful nicknames, and all the others who are held in the “loving memory” of the living.

I’ll find solace among the mourners and the Sunday strollers alike, bathed in sunshine that feels godly even to an atheist. I’ll feel small in a good way, the way Cathy Rentzenbrink describes it in her beautiful book A Manual for Heartache, about how she lives with the pain of losing her brother. I’ll give thanks for my grandmother’s long life, for what she built and what she gave her family.

There will one day be more joy, more sweet orange cocktails on a sun-soaked terrace surrounded by loved ones. Until then I’ll remember that we are all human, united in our dealings with death, not only in loss and grief, but also in love, in kindness, compassion and courage when we need it most. Daisies grow on graves and life always finds a way.

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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