Write stuff: The Funeral Crasher by Doug Johnstone

Welcome to the latest of The Scotsman’s regular feature showcasing the talents of Scotland’s best writers. Every Saturday will carry a great piece of writing from household names to up-and-comers, all reinforcing The Scotsman’s place as the home of Scotland’s best writing

Doug Johnstone. Picture: Esme Allen
Doug Johnstone. Picture: Esme Allen
Doug Johnstone. Picture: Esme Allen

Eva stood at the grave as a sharp wind drove down from Craigmillar Castle. The cemetery was so exposed up here, the saplings they’d planted as a future windbreak already bent in submission. Items left at gravesides were always getting blown away, bouquets scattering to the low corner of the field, scarves, slippers and teddy bears scudding across the grass until they snagged on someone else’s headstone.

She looked at the gravestone in front of her. Three months to the day since he was buried. The stone was simple, clean, just the name and dates like he wanted. The trend these days was for fancy headstones, ornate carvings, pictures of the deceased stuck to the masonry, but Jason hadn’t wanted any of that. In the seven weeks from diagnosis to deathbed they’d gone through all the arrangements. He liked to have things in order, even when he was hacking up blood and unable to go to the toilet himself.

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She glanced round. Thirty-six graves, she’d counted them. This place was new but growing all the time. She checked the other stones whenever she visited, always calculating the ages of the deceased, even though she knew a lot of them off by heart now. The one exception was the area just down the hill, away from the other graves, where the little ones were buried. She visited them the day after Jason’s funeral, but couldn’t stand to stay long. Many of them born and dead on the same day. Soft toys on the freshly dug earth, even scan photos resting on some.

She’d never had kids and now her husband was gone. He’d died aged fifty-five, in no man’s land. You couldn’t say he’d had a good innings, but neither did his death carry the shock of a young life ending. Just another dead person in a planet full to bursting with dead people.

A car crept along the road through the cemetery heading to the car park. Then another. Mourners arriving. She watched them get out, stretch, then head to the open grave up the hill. Two council workers in green overalls stood next to a pile of earth, wooden planks arranged around a muddy hole. More people walked up from Old Dalkeith Road, huddled against the wind. Eva stood and watched until fifty or so were standing around the open grave, exchanging hugs and world-weary looks.

Eventually a hearse pulled into the cemetery, two funeral cars behind. The family got out the cars, women with tissues pressed to their noses, men rolling their shoulders, supporting the wives, mothers, daughters. A white coffin was hauled out the back of the hearse, carried over and laid next to the hole. Men fussed with ropes and planks. Eva vaguely remembered something similar from Jason’s funeral. Her overriding memory was of something primal and raw, a struggle to get the heavy coffin into the ground, mud everywhere, ropes tangled, clods of earth thrown in, the wet ground soaking through her tights as she knelt and lost control.

She’d seen funerals here since then and had always kept her distance. But something stirred in her now as she watched. She walked over to the ceremony and lurked at the back. The anonymity of it was liberating. The humanist celebrant talked about Debbie, so full of life, now taken from us. Eva spotted Debbie’s widower, a handsome, stocky man in his fifties, holding onto his two teenage daughters who were in floods of tears. Why do men always have to be the stoic ones? Why couldn’t he break down and bash his fists against the earth, scream at the wind? He had to be strong for his daughters, but who was strong for him?

Before Eva knew it Debbie was in the ground and people were already leaving. The celebrant said that friends and family were welcome to commemorate Debbie’s life at The Salisbury Arms up the road.

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Eva stood still as people dispersed. She tried to catch people’s eyes, but everyone looked away.

She felt powerful.

This wasn’t her grief, it wasn’t her life torn apart, and that fact made her strong.

She waited till they had all gone then headed to the wake.

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The next day she woke with a clear head. She went downstairs and pulled out last week’s copies of the Evening News from her recycling. She flipped one open to the obituary page and ran her finger down the entries, looking for a funeral service happening today.

Wilson, died peacefully in his sleep, cremated today, Seafield Crematorium at 2pm.

She felt a thrum in her stomach as she got ready. Showered, shaved her legs, threw on a black dress, the same outfit she’d worn to Jason’s day. She headed out the door to Seafield, feeling alive for the first time in months.

For the next few weeks Eva went to a funeral every day, sometimes two or three if she could fit them in. Mortonhall, Warriston, Portobello, Corstorphine Hill, Liberton and sometimes back at Craigmillar Castle Park. Turned out Jason and Debbie were exceptions, most people were cremated these days. But she preferred burials, the earthiness of them, the thick stink of mud and grass. Cremations were too civilised, sitting in a nice building, watched by God as the coffin was lowered down through a trapdoor in the plinth. You didn’t even get to see flames licking at the oak and brass handles.

She got organised. Put a calendar up in the kitchen, bought the local paper every day, marked up the names, places and times of each funeral, planned her trips. She showered, took care of her appearance, bought four black dresses from M&S.

But the thrill began to wear off as time went on. Loitering at the back of the crowd, soaking up the grief of strangers, bathing in the communal misery, it didn’t fill her lungs with air or her head with hope anymore. She went to the wakes, got good at pretending to be sad, even got chatted up sometimes, but she always went home alone. This wasn’t about that.

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She woke up one morning and checked the calendar. She wasn’t in the mood but it felt like something that defined her now. The woman who went to funerals.

O’Brien, died suddenly at home, buried at Craigmillar Castle Park, 11am.

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It made a difference that it was on home turf, she hadn’t seen Jason in a while. She got ready and headed out. An hour later she was at his grave. She hadn’t brought flowers since this all started and she looked at the other graves, bouquets and gifts placed carefully.

She saw the council workers standing smoking by the earth mound up the hill. The hole in the ground was near Debbie’s. Mourners began to arrive, the body language of the bereaved so familiar to her now, every gesture heartfelt but predictable.

As the crowd grew she realised something. She recognised some of them. Then she remembered something about the name, O’Brien. The hearse pulled up, two cars behind, family spilling out. All the same mourners from Debbie’s burial. Except one. No widower.

She moved to the edge of the congregation, her stomach tight. A white coffin was slid out the hearse and placed next to the grave. She could see now that it was next to Debbie’s. Buried side by side.

The celebrant, the same celebrant, was talking about Nick, the dead man, how he’d struggled to go on since his wife Debbie died. A massive stroke in his sleep, his body and mind resigned to it. His daughters were wailing, held upright by big men.

The coffin went into the ground. The girls wouldn’t throw earth on it, refusing to take part in the ritual that insulted everything.

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Then it was over and people drifted away. There was no mention of a wake at The Salisbury Arms this time.

Eva stood until all the mourners had left. This time she didn’t try to catch anyone’s eye. The council workers looked at her then began shovelling dirt on top of Nick.

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She walked over to Jason’s grave, knelt down and dug her fingers into the dirt, clenched her fists, felt the mud squeeze under her nails. She stayed there for a long time looking at his gravestone, then she got up, brushed at her knees and went home.

When she got there she went to the kitchen and ripped the calendar from the wall, crumpled it up. She went to her wardrobe and took out all the black dresses, carried them into the garden and threw them in a heap. She took off the dress she was wearing and tossed it on top. She went back into the house and came out with a can of lighter fuel and a box of matches. Poured the fuel over the dresses, set fire to them and stepped back.

Smoke surged into the sky and she imagined the black particles being carried all the way to space. She stood in her bra and pants, still holding the lighter fuel and the matches, and stared at the flames.

There would be no more funerals.


• Doug Johnstone is the author of five novels, most recently Gone Again (Faber & Faber). His work has been an Amazon Kindle #1 bestseller, a Fiction Uncovered choice and a Goldsboro Last Laugh nominee, as well as receiving praise from Ian Rankin, Irvine Welsh and Chris Brookmyre. Writer-in-Residence at the University of Strathclyde 2010-2012, he is also a freelance journalist, a songwriter and musician, and has a PhD in nuclear physics. He is one of the co-founders of the Scotland Writers football team, for whom he plays in midfield. He lives in Edinburgh.