‘Derek’ – Dundee, 2nd May 2023
Duty Poet : Andy Jackson
After much planning and negotiation with various agencies and several trial events, this was our first ‘real’ Lonely Funeral. Dundee City Council confirmed the Friday before that all legal and administrative concerns had been ironed out, and that we could proceed according to our blueprint.
Information about the deceased was typically sketchy – as well as the name, we knew that he had been a painter and decorator by trade and had moved back up to Scotland from England after a period of ill health. His father had been a lorry driver and it was understood that he had four brothers. He had been married for a time, and had three daughters and two sons through this marriage. One of his daughters had a child, so he was also a Grandfather. It was assumed that he had become estranged from this family at some point. He spent the last six or seven months of his life in a care home in Barnhill, Dundee. He was just 63 when he passed away. I spoke to the care home the day before to see if they had any additional insights into Derek’s interests or hobbies, and what he was actually like as a person, but nobody seemed to know him particularly well.
The funeral, a burial, took place at 10am on the 2nd of May. The cemetery was deserted apart from maintenance staff, the weather overcast with a promise of Spring in the distant birdsong and mild temperature. I was joined by Michael, my co-director at the Lonely Funeral project, who wanted to see how this first event went. We found a freshly-dug plot covered with boards, away from the main area of the cemetery. We assumed that this grave had been prepared for Derek, though there was no indication to confirm this.
The hearse arrived ten minutes early, and we met James the Funeral Director at Ashtons. Ashtons is the company charged with undertaking what are known as ‘Environmental Funerals’ where the Council takes responsibility for the burial in the absence of family or friends. I had spoken to James the day before to see if there was anything we needed to know, and to confirm that he knew we would be there. James gave brief instructions – the grave would be uncovered, the coffin would be carried across to it and lowered. The team from Ashtons would step back and I would read the poem written for Derek based on the information we were able to glean about him. At this point we became aware of another person in attendance – who was this? We spoke to the person, a woman, who said she worked for Social Services. This was her case, and she was here to see that all went well.
Derek was laid to rest, and at the appointed moment James nodded to me and I stepped forward. I said a sentence or two about Derek, and then read the poem. And that was it. James thanked me and said how moving the poem had been, and we wryly observed that we would probably meet each other again in similar circumstances. I wondered to myself if all our Lonely Funerals would feel so conventional, so low-key. As we walked away, the woman from Social Work thanked us and said how fitting the poem had been and asked us about how the Lonely Funeral project worked. After a few minutes, we all went our separate ways.
Michael and I spoke the following day, to exchange thoughts about how our first event had gone. He recalled the sound of distant traffic, and the palette of colours – the black gleam of the hearse and the variegated greens of trees fringing the cemetery. Michael – who knows much more about funerals than I – also said that it was likely that there would be no headstone marking Derek’s final resting place within the cemetery, as this would be an additional expense to the Council. I responded by saying that at least the poem written for him would serve as that headstone. Michael’s response to this is something I will remember forever; ‘yes, Andy – and what a headstone’.
To our knowledge, this was the first Lonely Funeral in the UK, based on the original model from the Netherlands and Belgium. I was honoured to be the first Duty Poet, yes, but the greater honour was to be able to speak for a man called Derek, who died aged 63 but who had once been as alive as I was. And no less important.
I step into the boxroom of your life,
tiptoe round the shrouded furniture,
shapeless islands on the exposed floor.
Who lived in this room, and what kind of light
fell through its window before the fixtures
and fittings of time could bear no more?
I cannot know, and yet am drawn to the walls,
sandwiched with paper and emulsion,
layer on layer, overlain with eggshell years.
I tug at a peeling edge and pull, and a small
corner tears away in my hand. I imagine
you with your brush and bright paint, here
in the midst of what you were, applying
primer, undercoat, topcoat, glossing
and touching up, each coat a moment
preserved: maybe damage you were trying
to make good, or faith in the face of closing
doors, working the quiet job with devotion.
Here are the patterns of a family, of love
built up but somehow broken. Below
is the lining paper of a childhood, too dark
to be a colour. Below that, I cannot look,
and so I will put away my pen and go
from this room, empty now as a stilled heart.
Let these words know a painter’s touch,
and their simple strokes be just enough
to show the world the keenness of your brush.