Margaret's memorial service

My mother's memorial service was held on Saturday 20th October at 11am, and it was a near-perfect success.

A few people congratulated me on organising the ceremony, as if I'd done it all myself - which I hadn't; I had gate-keepers like Pat and Madeleine for the Edinburgh people, Tim for the family, and Cleodhna dealt with the funeral directors (not part of the ceremony - it was just a memorial service - but it was grisly work that needed doing). And by the end of the first day, Pat had had the idea of having a service in the Botanics, which was so perfect a solution that everything else became easy by comparison. It ended up just like organising a wedding - you start off with a daunting list of things that need to be done, and you do a few each day, and before you know it you're down to a manageable level.

Saturday was a gorgeous sunny day, and well ahead of time we shepherded Margaret's most gorgeous plants from her flat to the Botanics - a large rubber-tree plant and an only slightly smaller umbrella plant, both poking out of the sunroof of our car, driven at something like 10 mph (with Cleodhna in the back seats holding on to the plants). So rather than a dreary coffin, we had a large photo of Margaret on an easel, and a couple of vivid plants next to it. Nearly everyone had managed to find a way of abiding by our wishes to send pot plants rather than cut flowers - i.e. plants that could be re-used, rather than cut flowers that we'd throw away after a few days - and the combination of Margaret's plants, plants from well-wishers, prints on the wall and sunlight in from the windows made the hall a vibrant, living place.

Pat had also mentioned having a humanist service, so I googled and then emailed the first name on the list, which turned out to be Ivan Middleton, exactly the sort of person you'd want to officiate at any ceremony. His basic service was spot on, and after I'd spoken to him and exchanged emails, the part that was about Margaret was pretty much perfect also. The problem with your mother dying is that, unless she was an inveterate nostalgic gossip, you don't actually know much about her early years, but thankfully Angela (who had known her since they were 14; she couldn't make it up to Scotland so Ivan read our her tribute on her behalf), Pat (knew her since Birmingham Manchester University) and Madeleine (a close friend since she moved to Edinburgh 10+ years ago) contributed moving tributes that filled in the gaps for many of us.

The one slightly hairy moment was when Ivan went into his "we're done with speeches, let's reflect on Margaret's life" bit, which I knew from his standard spiel meant that he either had forgotten or I hadn't told him (doesn't matter which one) that I wanted to say something. I eventually managed to attract his attention just before the end of the service and got up to say my bit; given that my send-off was to tell people to honour my mother's traditions with a glass of wine at the forthcoming reception, this wasn't too bad a mistake to make.

Then we all trouped out, and Cleodhna and I did the obligatory reception line, dealing with commiserations from each guest in turn, while our mates took all the plants, giant photos, easels etc. to the car. From there on it was easy: we strolled up the road to the reception, Jamie handed me a glass of wine, and I spent most of the rest of the afternoon talking to friends of Margaret's telling me how wonderful my mother was. We had a folder full of photos of Margaret that we thought meant something, and space underneath the photos for people to write things; I think nearly everyone flipped through the folder, and a fair few wrote something, and that's much better than a generic book of condolences where everyone feels obliged to say "I'll miss her so much" or "I was devastated when I heard the news", as if it helps that your guests feel that they need to one-up the others in a Monty Python's Yorkshireman sketch sort of way.

(For similar reasons, when compiling a list of things that well-wishers had said, I ignored all of the "I'll miss her terribly" comments, and concentrated on the fond memories that people had. I don't see the point in wallowing in grief; the point of a memorial service is for people to get together and honour the memory of the dearly departed, and it does nobody any good to incessantly remind the audience that, dammit, she's dead.)

People paid their regards, those of us that were left (mostly family) went back to Margaret's flat (and Jamie, who was an absolute trouper all throughout, drove the car - now full of plants again - back to Canonmills), we relaxed a bit more, chatted, had some random chinese food, and then the family went off to the airport for their flights down South and I phoned the people who couldn't make it to tell them how wonderful a day it had been.

Eventually, we'll take all of the speeches, and all of the comments on photos, and assemble them into one big web page; and we'll print it out and mail it to those people who couldn't make it.

This might happen while we're in France; we're heading over to Bergerac this coming Saturday, mostly because a) it's the only direct flight from Scotland to Dordogne there is, and b) we have no idea whether there'll ever be another one, because airlines introduce their new winter timetable in late October, and don't tell anybody about it in advance. (No, not even the airlines whose business model is built around selling cheap tickets to people who buy weeks or months in advance.)

We had an almost perfect service in Scotland, mostly because we were confident that a humanist service in the Botanic Gardens would both work, and would be acceptable. I'm much less confident about the French service - and in a sense I don't think it matters too much. The main reason for a French service is so the French (and similar - we have Spanish and Danish people coming too because it's easier) can come to it and grieve, and that means a pretty traditional Catholic service. Which is fine - I'll try and make sure the Savignac curé knows that he should keep the religion to a minimum, but to my mind, the service that matters is the one in Edinburgh.