The sky was a heavy dark grey. The rain at least showed decency and stopped briefly, but it was definitely funeral weather.
We gathered last week for a sad farewell to a father and a husband taken too soon. As the priest muttered something written centuries ago, incense clogged the air, a bell tolled and the mood became even grimmer.
Of course, funerals are hardly going to be a laugh a minute. But often we’re so anxious to stick to religious protocol and solemn tradition that it’s only when the formalities break and a relative or friend talks with voice cracking or a gentle smile of what made their loved one special that mourners feel a true sense of who has been lost.
Other cultures seem to strike a better balance. As a child I was in Cristobal, a port town on the edge of the Panama Canal, my family just passing through. It had been raining there, too, but as the clouds broke a marching band struck up and charged along the main street followed by a funeral procession of mourners who swayed hips and shuffled feet in time to the music. Their grief was every bit as painful as ours but their procession so much more a celebration of life than another plodding rendition of Abide with Me could ever be.
And there’s something innocent and uplifting about the trend in Ghana, where customised coffins reflect the character of the deceased – cars, planes, fish, even Coca-Cola bottles. Surely more personal than satin-lined plywood?
Last month, details of the 2011 census emerged, revealing nearly 40 per cent of us are non-religious. It raises the question of whether the religious-themed funeral is itself a dying breed. Perhaps eventually religious tradition will give way to more humanist funerals like my mother-in-law’s, her favourite songs, poetry and a farewell from the hearts of her loved ones, not from an old book read by a strange voice.
There’s only one way into this world and many ways of leaving it. Make mine a banana-shaped coffin, accompanied by a blast of Bruce Springsteen and a right good knees-up for those left behind.