Dead centre

Lawnswood crematorium in Leeds is best visited in a persistent drizzle. It was never supposed to look sunny, it was supposed to look late-Victorian – a solidly gloomy embodiment of civic pride and efficiency and respect for death.

Mourners when the chapel was built didn’t cross its doors to celebrate a life with bright clothes and irreverent music; they knew that death could come at any time and that its inevitability was more than theoretical, it was everyday. So they kept their heads down, their clothing dark and their voices low. The enemy, as evidenced by the gravestones and memorials all around them, was at the gates and it was best not to draw attention to yourself.

So I didn’t mind that the funeral of my near-neighbour and friend, Tony, happened in the rain or that I wore my most sober (and actually my only) suit to it; I thought that I could tell myself that that’s what he would have wanted, despite leaving it too late to ask him personally.

I did, though, know quite a lot about Tony (except that he would be cremated under the unfamiliar name of Anthony Kavanagh), having spent much time chatting to him in our local pub, the Chemic Tavern in Woodhouse, Leeds.

This was also the scene of the after-do, when quite a generous quantity of savouries and cakes disappeared very quickly, despite fears that Tony’s funeral, given that he was an unmarried only-child with a fair amount of friends but very few relatives, would end with an embarrassing surplus.

He could, though, more through a lifetime of friendships than intentional funeral planning, look back – if that’s a post-cremation possibility – with the satisfaction that there was hardly a crumb left from the buffet. It’s become my minimum post-mortem ambition to feed everybody beyond the possibility of moaning; I don’t want the mourners to be inconsolably broken but I’d rather they didn’t feel the need to complain about the vol-au-vents.

You can learn much that’s new at a cremation because all the bits of the deceased’s life come, for one day only and before being lost in the flames, into focus.

I didn’t know, because Tony never chatted about work, being more interested in important things, like food and politics, that he had been employed at the same glass company for 39 years, nor that, being brought up in Algeria, he spoke fluent French, even though his chosen language was fluent Yorkshire.

I think if I spoke any foreign language (he was also fluent in Spanish) I would not have been able, through our many chats, to resist rubbing it in, which shows he was a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

I did know that Tony died only a few months after retirement, which is – there’s no other word for it – a bugger, since he was fond of walking and outings and would have made very good use of an indefinitely extended holiday.

His work colleagues, a most amiable bunch I’ll probably never meet again, regretted that nobody from Management had bothered to make even a token appearance at the funeral, which tells you more about Management and its near-sociopathic values than it does about funerals, which are still (before, as is almost inevitable, they are outsourced to G4S or some similar organisation) bastions of quiet British efficiency and decency.

I hope nobody notices that Lawnswood Crematorium is sited on prime and leafy land that could be built on, and that it would make perfect sense, when public spending is regarded as an offence against the prosperous, to move it, via grossly-expensive private finance borrowings, to some derelict site that few mourners could reach and nobody could love.

Just in case, we should prepare to fight for our crem.


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