• Ian Tattum

The Space Between

Updated: Mar 21

In normal times funerals usually run like clockwork. Every hour a new set of mourners arrive. They come early, or last minute, and there are often the tail enders who smash the Cemetery speed limit in their desperation not to be late. They come alone or by the car load; greeting each other with hugs and words of sympathy. There is always laughter and a last chance for a calming fag or a dash to the loo before the hearse arrives. The crematorium staff loiter with their hands behind their backs and the sardonic air of maître d’s. The minister is there early and having prepared in their own private room, waits patiently at the door trying to balance friendliness with empathy. Then the funeral cortège arrives and an atmosphere of expectant dignity descends. A funeral director bustles up, shakes a few hands, and surreptitiously passes a cheque in an envelope to the minister as if paying a bribe. The music starts and the coffin is led into the chapel, the mourners follow and file into the seats.

But today was different. The car park was buried under a temporary mortuary. The previous funeral, the first of that morning, had over run so the crematorium staff were already anxious about how they would manage the rest of the day with double the usual number of services to fit in. Even with a limit of only ten mourners per funeral all the available car parking was full that so that those coming for the next service had to be held back at the cemetery gate.

Due to the temporary mortuary there were security guards guarding the site. They were heroically trying to be kind but inadvertently intimidated the people held up at the entrance. Each mourner had arrived in their own car and far more than the ten allowed had come along, creating a snake of traffic stretching back to the supermarket roundabout which blocked the access for frustrated shoppers.

There was no means of communication between the security guards and the crematorium staff, so we just had to wait. Eventually the people attending the first funeral were ushered out and those for the next took their place. First though there had to be a last gasp discussion of which of the twenty mourners could go into the chapel where they were to be socially distanced for the duration of the service. While the funeral director and the crematorium staff sorted that out the parakeets chatted in the trees as usual and I debated in my head how I was going to break the news to the grieving family that their one hymn had mysteriously dropped off the computerised music system. And how thirty minutes of music, eulogies and prayers could be squeezed into the fifteen minutes of the allotted time that remained.

The rite was concluded not with handshakes but hand washing!

Shared goodwill, patience and the solidarity of bewilderment just about saw us through.

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