My mum was a PE teacher and coach. One of her early gifts was to help me feel like a physically capable female. For the couple of years before she died, my body had taken a battering, with illness and major surgery, then pregnancy and the aftermath, so I wasn’t feeling at all hale. Carrying a coffin is not something a woman necessarily plans to do – usually men perform this task; assumed to be stronger bearers. It’s a frightening, demanding duty.
But I wanted to do it for Mum. I wanted to be involved practically with the process of grief, and “put my hands under the stone”. My cousin R, an upland sheep farmer and incredible woman, walked at the front with me. What the congregation in church saw first as we entered the building was not a typical sight – a beautiful white wool coffin carried in by women. The coffin was chosen by my dad, my brother and me. It was constructed from local fleece and covered with flowers, a visual antidote to fear and darkness.
For the interment, we had the catastrophic challenges of storm Desmond’s tail – a Met Office red weather warning, flooding and damage in the village cemetery, debris everywhere. The entire burial was in question. Throughout, the undertakers were superb, calm, stewarding, agents of a remarkable humanity. Drains were unblocked; the grave was dug, the burial would go ahead, they insisted, the coffin taken via a high passable pathway, between the oldest headstones.
It’s an old Westmorland tradition that mourners walk in a cortege from church to cemetery behind the hearse, and everyone did. The scene was like something from an oil painting; the formal procession through a drenched Lakeland village, the gales dying out and black clouds breaking apart, rays of brilliant, gilded light. People had fought to get to the funeral – train lines and roads were shut and there were long delays, blockages, power cuts. Those who tried all made it, or sent representatives from as far afield as India and the US.
It was an incredible experience – a good disturbance in the heart. I’m haunted, but not traumatically, and a few years later wrote a short story about it all called Sudden Traveller. It is the only story I cannot read out in public.
Regardless of the epic December weather, there were absent people who might have come in support – of me, if not my mother. At the time, my marriage was breaking down and my daughter was only 16 months old. Mum had been sick with cancer for a year and I lived six hours away from her and Dad. I was in the eye of a personal storm, too.
But another system of love and solidarity rose through. My oldest school friend looked after my daughter during the funeral. At the wake, my daughter skipped around in a dress made out of Mum’s velvet wedding gown. It felt as if there was some kind of female bequeathment and empowerment that day.
Though I had seen my mother dying in hospital, and in the morgue, carrying her coffin was the visceral moment when I really understood she was gone. She had protected me from bullying as a child, protected me from difficult, scary situations; she had loved her children in that mantling way. And she had spent hours coaching me, honing and encouraging me as an athlete. If I dropped a ball or missed a shot, she would say: “Pick it up, you can do it.”
She was gone. I had a small child to care for. There was nothing maternally supportive above or around me. I faced the greatest suffering of my life, the loss of my mother, without her. The lone-ness of it felt like anablephobia, fear of a vast sky.
But that day I understood what had been instilled in me. An ability to function, bodily, and focus the mind on an impossible task. An ability to carry the most precious thing safely through wreckage. To be hardy, even when feeling weak and vulnerable. I don’t remember making any promises or resolutions that day about my future, and my daughter’s future, but I do remember drawing immense strength from the act of being a pallbearer. I remember thinking, I have to do this. I have to lift my mother and carry her to the place where we say goodbye. So bear the weight.
This moment has returned to me, in every confronting situation since, whenever the difficult, heartbreaking truth of some matter must be raised. It returns to me now, the week after losing my beloved father and calling the same undertaker. I think: Pick it up, you can do it.
Sarah Hall’s latest novel, Burntcoat, is published by Faber.