At the end of the Second World War, food was scarce in many European countries. By the Spring of 1946 Germans in the British zone were getting only 700 to 1000 calories per day. At the same time, Greece was experiencing shortages, so the British government decided to send food to Greece. After all, Germany had invaded Poland in 1939, and Greece in 1941, so it was natural to help the Greeks who had been invaded rather than the Germans who had invaded Greece.
British commanders in Germany felt that, on altruistic grounds, Germans should receive food, and sent a junior officer with an urgent request for supplies, in the hope of influencing the Cabinet meeting in London the following day. Bad weather in Germany grounded the standard RAF flight, but the 24 year-old officer managed to convince the pilot of a Dakota to take a risk, and fly him through the storm to Croydon airport, where was met by Bentley with motorcycle outriders, and delivered his communique to the Cabinet office. It may have had an effect, because at nightfall after a long day waiting, he finally went out on the street and saw the Evening Standard announcing: “Bread Rationing”. Britain restricted itself so as to also feed its very recent enemy.
So, on this day, down the village road we went, to his funeral at the church of St James, to celebrate his 97 years of life, the tiny kirk crammed full, chancel included, the Reverend explaining that the building was also his monument, in that he had bought a piece of the Coronation tapestry in 1953 and donated it as an altar piece; had commissioned three engraved glass windows; paid for the church lights; the carpeting (not from the Coronation, but serviceable) and also embroidered several of the tapestry kneelers, to his own design. Some time before dying, he also left a good sum to the church, which was then able to claim 25% Gift Aid on top of it, an advantage not granted to the dead. Good forward planning.
Barely 150 yards away was his other monument, a modernist house planned by him, and brought to detailed execution by a young architect given only the basic plan and the sole instruction: “No maintenance in my lifetime”. A recent revamp has brought it up to current energy requirements, and returned it to its original design, garnering prizes in the process.
So, why tell you about this? No names, no pack drill. I mention this particular life as a general illustration. Sometimes people question what constitutes a good life. Too complicated and capricious a judgment, they imply. After his return from military service he was sought after for his organisational ability and never had to apply for a job again. He eventually became the company secretary of a multinational engineering and architectural firm, and on retirement concentrated on painting, glass engraving, jewellery making, sculpture and of course, drawing houses, streets, villages and city squares wherever he went on his travels. There was no need to measure this man’s abilities because they were obvious. Most of us can judge a good life because we have our own hopes, and can make comparisons. Silly not to notice that some people do well, and do good.
Although I knew him for 38 years I had never heard of his service in occupied Germany and the story of his small part in post-war history, nor that he taught himself Urdu while in India during the war. Too dismissively, I once said that the main purpose of funerals was to reveal people’s middle names. Funerals go deeper than that, because they sum up achievements in a conventional sense, and impacts in a personal way. My account so far is of his public life, but the private life was even better, in the accounts given by his grandchildren and god-children, extolling the care he gave to birthday presents, outings, and frequent letters and special drawings and booklets, which included them as characters, and depicted their particular interests and ambitions. He was kind, always engaged, forever learning new skills and visiting new places. He coped lovingly with his wife’s long decline into dementia, saying to the assembled company as she struggled terribly: “I fell in love with this beautiful woman here beside me”. He bore his long widowhood with fortitude, mitigated by many marriage proposals, including from his final care staff.
Funerals add to the rounded picture, in that our knowledge of other people can be facetted, following the lines laid down by our interests, or happenstances of our meetings: times spent together which bind, but which thus may exclude other aspects of preferences or character. There is also an actuarial character to the event, with dimensions to be covered (early life, family, work, community) and sometimes, daringly, mention of personal foibles, lest the encomiums seem overdone. This man had no foibles worth mentioning. Better to recall that he was good fun, and fond of parties.
For believers the final judgment is yet to come, but for the living the personal ledger is being completed in full public vision: a life assessed in friendship, but set as a marker of attainment nonetheless. The days pass and are reckoned to our account.
Funerals provoke a furtive reckoning: will our own funerals be as well attended?
Personally, I have every reason to doubt it.
Why should one’s name be mentioned?
Should the snow be praised that has melted
If new snowfalls are impending?
Years ago another former villager was even more doubtful, saying no one would come to his funeral because his real character had been surgically removed. Hardly a real villager, he bought his wife a house, and left her in it. He died of his fifteenth heart attack. At his funeral at St Martin’s in the Fields his friends showed up in such great numbers that he would have been surprised, had he been alive to be surprised, which of course he wasn’t.
Even in judging our final impact on others we may be subject to errors of estimation, though in no position to correct them.
In the meantime, you should always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise no one will come to your own. You wouldn’t want that.