Looking back, I will always remember 2011 as the year during which I attended four funerals…
The first was at the start of March, when Conor Callanan, an elderly gentleman who came originally from Ireland but who had long been resident in Cape Town, died quite suddenly. I had met Conor a couple of years previously, over a breakfast at Raith’s with my mom; he used to have breakfast there regularly, as he stayed in the Gardens Centre. He was often found at the centre of a group of diverse folk who met over coffee and Broetchen, passionately discussing all manner of important issues.
He had a lovely Irish accent that enchanted me immediately. When Richard and I were planning our trip around the green isle of Ireland in 2008, he patiently answered all my questions, offered much helpful advice, and even prepared a draft itinerary for us, written painstakingly by hand. I will always remember how he sat with me over coffee one morning, going through a list of interesting places we could include on our itinerary. As attested to by all his friends and relations who attended his memorial service inside the beautiful chapel at Nazareth House in Vredehoek, he truly was an unforgettable character.
The second memorial service – and emotionally the most painful – was that of much-loved and highly respected South African poet and writer Stephen Watson, who passed away in April last year, having been diagnosed with cancer only a few months earlier. He was my English tutor and lecturer, thesis supervisor, mentor and guide during my years at the University of Cape Town. I attended his beautiful and heart-stirring funeral service in the chapel at Bishops in Rondebosch, and I was touched by how many people were there to express their grief, and to celebrate his life. I too will never forget him.
The third was that of “Papa H”, the father of one of my dearest and longest friends, who passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly, in June that year, also struck down by cancer. That too was very hard. C and I had been friends since the age of 6, and I always regarded “Papa H” and “Mama G” as father and mother figures, particularly when I was still young and spending many hours with my friend C after school every day. I valued his good-humoured and down-to-earth way of dealing with whatever problems life flung our way. I still find it difficult to grasp that he is not there anymore.
And finally, in July last year, I attended a memorial service in the beautiful town of Hermanus on the south coast. It was held in honour of retired Brigadier General Theo Beyleveldt who had passed away on 3 July 2011.
He was highly respected as a soldier, much admired for his leadership abilities, and clearly loved by the people of the Overstrand municipality, whom he served as Executive Mayor for the Democratic Alliance for several years. This was evident from the well-attended memorial service, held at the NG Kerk in Hermanus, during which various individuals paid tribute to Brig Gen Beyleveldt. He had also been a member of the Armour Corps of the South African National Defence Force.
And this is why I found myself driving through to Hermanus early on a beautiful blue-sky Thursday morning, in the company of several officers from the Defence Reserves provincial office of the Western Cape (DRPOWC). My role was to take photographs of the event, and to write a short article. Well, I took the photos and drafted the article but, as sometimes happens, it wasn’t finalised and thus wasn’t submitted on time to the relevant publication.
Today, though, I was going through my folders of not-yet-written or only-first-drafted articles, and thought to myself: Why not finish the article now, and just post it here? I know it is more than a year late, but it had been the first time I had attended such a high-profile memorial service for a well-known and much-respected public figure, and I wanted to document it in some way. So I have included some photographs in a slideshow below, and also attach the article in PDF format for those of you who would like to read it: PDF of article.
Perhaps it is odd that the only funeral I wrote about is that of someone I did not know personally. This is also the only funeral at which I took photographs.
But perhaps it is not so odd at all – grief is not an emotion that I find easy to share with others in a public forum like this.
Grief is not reasonable, or calm, or uplifting. It has no patience with platitudes, like “it’s for the best” and “his spirit is at peace now”. Yes, we all use those phrases like shields, to ward off the anguish and the confusion that threaten to overwhelm us like a tidal wave, and perhaps it is good and right to do so when we are all together, sitting in the church and listening to the reverend or the priest as they try to soothe the turmoil in our minds and to ease the pain in our hearts. Perhaps, we can even keep it together long enough not to allow the flood of tears to surge forth, until we are alone, in our car on the way back, or in our home, where it is suddenly so quiet.
No, grief is raw, it tears at the throat, it shreds the heart into tiny pieces, its claws rip through the guts, and it hurls wails of anger and sorrow and loss and desolation at the heavens. It is loud and furious, it rages and shakes its fists, until it is finally exhausted and curled up like a snail in its shell, vulnerable and quivering and longing desperately for the reassurance that some things will remain certain and constant, that the sun will still rise tomorrow morning, and set tomorrow night, and the day and the night after that…
Grief is not an event… it is a gradual process… it comes and goes in waves… Some days, it recedes like the sea withdrawing from the shore, and it feels like we have accepted the absence of this person we had loved so much, and whose life was so intertwined with ours. Sometimes, the emotions are as calm as a placid lake in the warm summer sunshine, where the water is so clear that we can see the pebbles on the ground and the fish flitting among them. But then there are those days, where the vague scent of something, a flower or an aftershave or perfume, will remind us… or a long-forgotten memory will surface unexpectedly, or we’ll have a dream about them, or we’ll bump into someone who resembles the person we lost, and that sorrow we thought we had dealt with surges to the surface once more.
And that is why I have found it so hard to write about these things.
But today, in my own way and my own time, I wanted to pay tribute to them. May they Rest In Peace.