It was June 2014 and I was at my granddaughter’s eighth birthday party. The youngest of the invited children was a five-year-old called Taylor. She was the granddaughter of Lianne, one of my wife’s best friends, the two of them having worked together for years. Taylor, too young for the games, had chosen instead to sit and chat with me. We knew each other well and enjoyed one another’s company.
Our conversation began with her asking me if I knew her age. ‘Of course I do,’ I told her, ‘you’re five.’ After asking my granddaughter’s age, she went on to develop a guessing game as to the ages of some of the adults and older children at the party. And then, after pausing for a moment, she turned to me and asked how old I was. I told her I was sixty-three and would be sixty-four in September. Without missing a beat, she said: ‘Well, you’ll be gone soon.’
That must’ve set me thinking because, not long afterwards, I took out a funeral plan, so that celebration’s now fully sorted and paid for. They really do arrange everything. Within an hour of the web-search in which I’d chosen my particular plan, I was on the receiving end of a lengthy phone-call from a woman with all the charm and humour of one of her company’s corpses. She relentlessly ploughed through a depressingly detailed list of questions about my post-mortal requirements.
What sort of coffin did I want? Not something I’d even considered. She started into her list of increasingly expensive options. I interrupted her: ‘The cheapest, I’m getting cremated.’
Being burned is an obvious choice. I’m claustrophobic at the best of times. Consequently, I most certainly don’t relish the possibility of a misdiagnosed death resulting in me waking up in boxed darkness six feet down. Such a situation would hardly be improved by finding myself hammered into a robust satin-lined container in hand-carved mahogany with solid gold handles. So, even without a furnace to remove any lingering doubt that I’m truly dead, a large bin-bag would suffice.
How many cars did I want? ‘Just the one,’ I told her. Death may be a mystery, but I do know that it drastically diminishes your mobility. A vehicle to ferry my stiff in its over-priced six-foot cardboard carton seemed like a sensible option. ‘Are you sure that one car will be enough, sir?’ she asked. ‘Yeah,’ I replied, ‘I’ve no plans to take anyone with me.’ ‘Of course not, sir,’ she responded, ‘but you might want to think of your family and guests.’ I said: ‘Unlike me, they’ll be able to drive their own cars.’
And so the inquisition droned on, embracing ever conceivably chargeable detail of my grand finale… arranging who’d carry my container, where we’d gather, who’d officiate, etc. Towards the end, I was seriously expecting to have to choose what went into the sandwiches for the post-send-off shindig.
My favourite exchange came when she asked me what songs I wanted. I said I’d be dead, why would I care? She said that the songs were for my family and friends to remember me by. I thought for a moment and then said ‘How about Burn, Baby, Burn by Ash?’ There was an eerie silence. I asked her if she was still there. She said ‘Of course I am.’ I said ‘So what’s wrong?’ She said ‘Nothing, sir. I’m just writing down your selection.’ I said ‘Don’t. It was just a joke.’ When she didn’t laugh or say anything, I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that she was deleting what she’d just written.
Her final question was ‘What would you like us to do with your ashes?’ At last, here was a question I’d actually thought about. I told her I’d been compiling a list of all the people I’d ever disliked. What I wanted was to have a handful of my dust chucked in the face of each of them. There was the briefest of pauses before she said: ‘I’m sorry, sir, but that’s not one of the services which we offer.’
My God, dying is such a bloody hassle! No wonder we only do it the once. If Taylor’s right, it’ll soon be over for me. What a relief that’ll be! I just hope it’s quick. I’d prefer to stride off this mortal coil rather than shuffle or have to be pushed.
I was a teenager when I had my first lesson in the indignity and discomfort of geriatric infirmity. I was hitch-hiking home from a camping holiday when I got a lift in a lorry. Its driver was in a hurry. At one point he pulled up at a zebra crossing outside the gates of a cemetery. Here he waited with growing impatience while a very old couple, presumably heading home from a funeral, shuffled oh-so-slowly from one kerb to the other. When they eventually got there, we inched forward and, as we passed them, he rolled down his window and leaned out before shouting ‘Why bother leaving?’