I was due to go to Florence last week but my beloved aunt died on Tuesday and I cancelled. Herself came home from Italy early and we all went to the funeral. I did say to herself that she could stay on in Italy if she wanted. She said, “How could I enjoy myself when I was missing Aunty Pat’s funeral? She’s not just any old great aunt.”
My aunt (my father’s sister) had just turned 94 in June. I was down to visit her in the hospital. She seemed alright. I mean I still am unsure what killed her other than being old and being in hospital. She was reading the Guardian with enthusiasm a couple of days before she died. Still, she was at home until she went into hospital about 10 days before she died and her quality of life was pretty good. She was mobile (recently she astonished me by hopping out of her chair, kneeling down to light a recalcitrant gas fire and hopping up again) and she still enjoyed reading. I remember her telling me that once when she visited the hospital with my grandmother, a nurse who knew the family said, “We’ll have to shoot you, your family all live forever.” Not quite.
She never married. When my granny died in the early 1980s she moved in next door to my parents. This was a good move for us and also, I think, for her. We knew her much better than we would have done otherwise and she was a huge part of our lives. In her later years, my brother and, particularly, my sister were heroic in helping to organise home help and everything that comes with being awfully old. Because she lived next door to my parents, my children ran in and out of her house too whenever we went to visit my parents. They knew her really well.
She died on Tuesday, July 19 at about 4 in the morning. The next few days there was the usual scramble to sort the funeral mass (missalette, singers, readers). Daniel had grown out of his suit and he and I went to town to get a new one. It lashed rain on us and I traipsed around the shops wearing my plastic waterproof trousers. I slowly baked. When we emerged back into the daylight, the rain had stopped and I took off my plastic shell. “I feel like a new woman released from my plastic casing,” I said to Dan. “That is literally the plot of the Barbie film,” he replied. Topical.
The removal was quite sparsely attended which was a little bit depressing. The thing is that people come to your parents’ funerals but not really your aunt’s. And she was 94 so a lot of her friends were dead. And we were really the only relatives.
We had the funeral at 10 on Saturday morning (so as not to clash with summer weddings). I was so charmed and surprised, the church was full of people. A couple of people who had worked with her and more who had worked for her (a bit younger), people whose parents were her friends, a good few of my sister’s friends actually (definitely above and beyond to go to an aunt’s funeral), an elderly gent who was married to a friend of Aunty Pat’s hoved up to me and told me that my Mum had lectured him in college. I didn’t get his name or any further details in the press of people, a shame. It was lovely to hear people talk about my aunt and to see that she was so well liked. She was a delightful person. I got to shake the hand of the daughter of Cork’s greatest hurler as did Dan. Her mother was a great friend of my aunt. My children said that they felt like minor celebrities as so many of the mourners knew all about them. My sister gave a speech about my aunt which I really enjoyed, reminding me of things I had half forgotten myself, like how good at cards she was and how quick at sums, how she enjoyed to travel. She and my father grew up with their mother and many bachelor uncles and spinster aunts. Her father died when she was seven. Although my father was allowed to finish school and go to college (to be fair to him, he won scholarships for everything but he still wasn’t making money, if you see what I mean), my aunt was taken out of school at 16 and brought, weeping to her first job. She worked for a newspaper distribution company and despite her, presumably, gloomy first day she enjoyed it. She went back to college as a mature student and did a degree. She got a job in UCC in admin where she stayed for the rest of her professional career, climbing the greasy pole rather further than we had realised.
We had to get her cremated as the graves where her parents were buried and where my parents and her grandparents were buried were full. We can apparently add ashes to the grave where my parents and her grandparents are so that is what we decided to do rather than get a new grave. Cremations are new to us. The crematorium is quite nice, out in one of the many islands that dot Cork harbour but it was odd not to have a grave side service.
I was officer in charge of music. For the church I mostly chose numbers I liked myself, however, I did choose two 1970s folk group type numbers “Be Not Afraid” and “Morning has Broken” that I do not like. Although one should not speak ill of the dead, my aunt was, I fear, a fan of these modern post-Vatican II guitar strumming hymns and I felt that she would like them (I know “Morning has Broken” is older but anyone who attended mass in the 70s has heard the desperate guitar version). “Be Not Afraid” did nothing for me but we had “Morning has Broken” as we took the coffin out of the Church and it was beautiful and sad. I feel a bit teary thinking of it even now so maybe Aunty Pat was right about even more than we thought.
We had to pick two songs for the crematorium. The undertaker emphasised that we could have whatever we wanted, they didn’t have to be religious, they just had to be available on Spotify. This is why herself now has a playlist called “Aunty Pat’s Cremation”. We picked a religious hymn to start anyway. For the final hymn we struggled. We thought it might be nice to have a secular song that she liked. The only thing I could think of that she had enjoyed in recent years was the spectacularly unsuitable “Oh How He Lied”. Herself said that Aunty Pat had enjoyed “The Trolley Song“. She played it and somehow the idea of disappearing into the flames to “Ding, ding, ding went the bell” seemed unappealing. I mean technically the flaming is done after the relatives disappear but you know what I mean. My sister said that Aunty Pat had sung a word perfect version of Guy Mitchell’s Christopher Columbus on her birthday the previous month and after some hesitation we picked it. I was not previously familiar with it. I’m not sure it was a perfect choice, I will say. I mean “this world ain’t big enough for me” went over quite well but “travel slow cause you might fall down to the world below” was, in retrospect, not a line you want to hear repeated at a cremation. We were all a bit unnerved when the undertaker told us he had never heard anything quite like it at a service before. It was funny though and cheerful and it is something to remind us of a very beloved aunt who would have enjoyed it herself.