‘Henry’ – Dundee, 28th June 2023
Duty Poet : Andy Jackson
Our second Lonely Funeral since the launch. The sense from Michael (the co-lead for the Dundee Lonely Funeral project) and myself was that if we hadn’t delivered what we had undertaken to do at the first Lonely Funeral we wouldn’t be asked back to do another. We hoped that we had acted with sufficient dignity and sensitivity with the first funeral for ‘Derek’ in May 2023 to prove that the project was in safe hands. We were therefore much heartened when Dundee Council notified us of the potential of a second funeral.
The funeral was for an elderly gentleman called Henry who had died in a Dundee care home a fortnight before at the age of 76. We were contacted a week later but the funeral date had at that point yet to be fixed – likely to be within the next week. This pattern of a week’s notice was a repeat of our first Lonely Funeral, so the pressure was on once again to deliver a poem rapidly. Added to this tight time scale was a new dimension, however; the BBC had shown some interest in our project, and a production company in England had been asked to make a short film about our work for broadcast at some point in the future. After some conversations about whether this would be acceptable, Dundee City Council agreed to the BBC’s involvement. We felt that this exposure could be good for the project if handled sensitively, but also for our Council partners in the city of Dundee who had got behind the project as an expression of compassion. We duly contacted the production company who identified a director/producer and a camera operator to come to Dundee in time for the funeral to capture some of what we do.
The poem for Henry was once again a patchwork of fragments known about his life: he was from Lochee, an historically working class district of Dundee; he had a brother and a sister, both believed to be dead; his job (if he had had one) was unknown, as was his marital status; he supported Dundee Football Club; he liked simple food – fish and chips, blackcurrant juice; he loved to read about the history of old Dundee, and look at photographs of the bygone city; he liked music, and was particularly fond of Elvis Presley; he liked TV crime dramas, particularly the CSI series. The overall impression was of a quiet and private person, picked out only in minor detail. Like so many people of his age and generation, to outsiders his life story was mostly painted in shades of grey with small but vivid flashes of colour visible only to those around him – his carers, in this case. The conceit for the poem was quickly established – an investigation by a detective to piece together the details to get a sense of the person…an apt metaphor for the job of the Duty Poet in the Lonely Funeral team.
The camera team – Rebecca and Kay – arrived on the morning of the funeral to an unseasonably grey Dundee; cloudy with the threat of rain in the distance. They set up in my kitchen and conducted a few interviews along with shots of Michael and me looking thoughtful and discussing the poem. This added a sheen of surreality to what was already going to be an untypical day. We decamped to the Cemetery in time for the 2pm funeral, the only one of the afternoon. The cemetery, positioned overlooking the city, afforded a broad view of the Dundee skyline – oil rigs, buildings and the distinctive shape of Dundee Law, the dormant volcano overlooking the city. The production team had smoothed out as much of their administrative issues with the Council in advance, but even at the last minute the Cemeteries management team were looking (quite rightly) for evidence of a risk assessment for the camera team – fortunately this had been done. Time for more shots before the hearse arrived, this time of poets walking through a deserted graveyard. And then something quite unexpected happened. People arrived.
Firstly, two staff arrived from the Social Work Department at Dundee Council – Sarah, our champion and without whom we could never have got the project off the ground, and Claire, a Social Work student on placement who had been our contact for this particular funeral. It was great to meet both of them at last. And then, a party of care home staff – maybe ten in number. The notion of this funeral being ‘lonely’ seemed to recede, except that (as Michael pointed out), these people knew little more about Henry than we did, and certainly weren’t expecting to speak for him at the graveside; that was my job. In a way, the idea of someone having a lonely funeral transforms the event, and possibly acts as a motivation to people to attend. Perhaps giving it a name or label changes its nature?
And so, after the hurly-burly of TV cameras and unexpected faces in the day so far, a quietness descended as the hearse arrived from Ashton’s Funeral Directors, with Henry’s coffin. The funeral team brought Henry to the graveside, and he was lowered into the grave with the help of some of his carers who held the cords supporting the coffin. All stepped back, and I stepped forward. The louring sky decided that that was the moment to step forward too, with its gift of heavy drizzle delivered as I opened my mouth to speak to Henry.
After the funeral we said our goodbyes to Sarah and Claire from Social Work, and Rebecca and Kay from the production team. They assured us that our rambling and ragged interview responses would be edited into coherence by the technical team, and that CGI would make Michael and me look younger and thinner. We looked out across Dundee one more time, and across to the grave into which Henry had been laid. Once again, I felt privileged to have been able to speak for someone I would never meet, and hopeful that Henry’s name would soon be spoken aloud and his life celebrated in the most unlikely circumstances – in the company of television viewers across the UK.
A Case Called Henry
They called me in to investigate the scene
of a life lived in unassuming privacy. I am here
to gather clues, work out what they mean,
how a man like you could quietly disappear.
Here is a photo; three versions of a face,
you, sister and brother smiling from a frame
like a postcard from the past, frozen in a place
so changed that all that remains is its name.
Here is a turntable spinning an old Elvis 45,
a crackling needle playing out That’s Alright
Mama, and I hear you singing, happy, alive,
in a place where no-one is lonesome tonight.
Here are the remains of fish and chips, simple
fare that offers comfort in low times. You eat
what you know, but each life needs a sprinkle
of salt and vinegar, a glass of something sweet.
Here is your book of old photographs, the town
as it was when you were young, when Lochee
knew its boundaries, and Dundee was down
a long road, under the bridge, and into history.
Perhaps some clues I was never meant to find
– a job, maybe someone special, who knows? –
but still, you left a vital fingerprint behind.
This investigation concludes. Case closed.