MY CHRISTMAS did not go quite the way it was planned. It should have been very quiet and peaceful, real chill out stuff, with time to sort through mountains of paperwork and the usual year-end things. It was not to be.
My brother died just before Christmas, so I had to go back to England for the cremation, which was held on New Year’s Eve. Lots of people choose to pass over around this time of year, don’t they? Is it because traditionally it’s the darkest, coldest time of the year, I wonder, or perhaps just the feeling that they cannot face another year like the last one?
Anyhow, the point is that, at the gathering after the service, I caught up with yet more members of my disparate family – a new generation. My brother’s children are married and have their own grown-up children, two of whom were present. One of my sister’s daughters was there with her fiancé – you get the idea. I remember these people being born and to see them now, grown up and doing their own thing, is a potent reminder to me of how quickly the years are passing – correction, how quickly they have passed!
As I observe this younger generation, I realise how totally out of touch I am with the culture in England now – and, I have to say, I give thanks for that! I remember what I was like from my late 20s up to the big 40, and it was nothing like these young people. When I worked in London in my early 20s, there was certainly a drinking culture, bottles of wine at lunchtimes and after work, but it was not a case of drinking until you fell over. And none of the girls I knew would set out on a Friday and a Saturday to drink pints and get just as drunk as their boyfriends, because that’s what you do, isn’t it? There was not so much obsession with television characters and reality TV had (thankfully) not been thought of – that in itself is a sign of the times.
My eldest nephew lives in Australia with his wife and three sons, aged 15, 13 and eight. He said that he would not dare take his children back to England now because so many youngsters there are aggressive, rude and loutish. “My boys open doors for their teachers at school,” he said – how uncool is that!
Something totally different struck me during the cremation service itself. The small church was packed and, naturally, many people were in tears. What occurred to me was how fortunate we were to be able to pay our last respects in such sympathetic, supportive surroundings when, on the other side of the world, earth-moving machines were busy digging mass graves for the thousands of people who lost their lives in the tsunami. Those poor people were photographed, fingerprinted and had DNA samples taken before being buried in body bags alongside tens or hundreds of total strangers in the most basic of graves – or, in some cases, burned on traditional pyres. The importance of preventing the spread of disease dictated that there could be none of the usual ceremony or ritual, leaving families all over the world with a huge sense of loss for their loved ones. Without a body to bury, without that final closure, somehow we feel that there is unfinished business – that we haven’t done right by the person who has passed over.
The death of so many innocent people in such a short time has touched us all. But is it, as one commentator cynically observed, because there are so many of ‘us’ involved rather than just ‘them’? After all, there has not been the same outpouring of generosity and help for the millions starving quietly in Africa, has there? Clearly, the wasting away of impoverished people, who have nothing to start with, is not as photogenic or dramatic as the sudden and traumatic deaths of these poor Asians who would be equally forgotten were it not for the tourist trade of western holidaymakers.
There is no regular showing of amateur video footage of skeletal women weeping, as their babies, bellies swollen with starvation, die in their arms – that takes too long to be interesting, it doesn’t fit into a Sky News’ sound and vision bite.Please don’t get me wrong – my heart goes out to all those who lost loved ones in the tsunami and I, along with many friends, have prayed for the peaceful passing of the souls. But it does highlight both the enormous potential for love and compassion in the world and also the unfairness of it all.
In looking for some relevant words for my brother’s service, I came upon a lovely passage. Ancient Egyptians believed that, when a soul passed to the other side, it would be asked two questions by the gate-keeper and, only if the soul gave the correct answers, would it be allowed to pass. The questions were: ‘did you bring joy?’ and ‘did you find joy?’ As we embark on yet another year, with all the challenges that it will throw in our paths, I think it would do us all good to stop and consider those questions every now and then – just to make sure we can answer positively when our time comes!