Why laughter is as important as grieving in the wake of the Queen's death - Euan McColm
It’s a cold, clear morning and there are four of us standing in the car park of a cemetery in the North-east of England. Though the rain stopped some time ago, the ground - all mud and leaves - is still wet.
Lockdown regulations mean the number of people permitted to attend funerals is strictly limited and so we – and the humanist celebrant who is to conduct proceedings – are the only ones who, when it arrives, follow the hearse as it slowly travels up the narrow road that bisects this sacred place before stopping some 30 yards from the freshly dug grave.
We wait near the plot while four pall-bearers, employees of the local undertaker, remove the coffin from the hearse. All is solemn. Hands are squeezed and shoulders rubbed.
We see it start to happen before he realises his fate. The man with the bottom left corner of the coffin on his shoulder steps onto a slick patch of mud, just inches from the grave. He tries to fight it, tensing his body, but all this achieves is to wind things down into slow motion.
We watch as, teeth gritted, he gently slips to the ground where he comes to rest, his left leg pinned down by the coffin. His employer looks horrified. A colleague slowly shakes his head as if to say this isn’t the first time this has happened.
We four suppress our laughter. But we when we glance at each other, it’s clear the perfect slapstick of the movement is lost on none of us.
The hapless pall-bearer was probably ferociously bollocked by his boss later in the day. Those of us attending the funeral, however, would have thanked him. For there is nothing more precious in times of sadness than the restorative power of laughter. His pratfall released a pressure valve and we all felt the better for it.
In the days since the death of Queen Elizabeth II, there has been a remarkable outpouring of grief from members of the public. I have no doubt this is sincere, but I am not at all certain that – in every case – this sadness is really about the passing of the monarch.
Over recent years, while coronavirus-related restrictions impacted on just about every area of our lives, many were denied the opportunity to fully mark the deaths of loved ones. Churches were not packed with those who had stories to share and whose eulogies might have brought comfort. Purveys went unprepared in shuttered local hotels, denying the grieving the chance to drown their sorrow in sherry and those two great comforters, steak pie and sentimentality.
Many will recognise the scenario I previously described, where funerals were smaller, briefer and altogether less substantial than they might otherwise have been.
Are some of those now grieving the Queen really grieving the loss of their own loved ones? Will tomorrow’s funeral be some kind of replacement for a service they would dearly have wished – that, perhaps, they needed – to attend? If so, then good luck to them. They deserve the comfort the celebration of the Queen’s life might bring.
And if those people needed moments of light to lift them through the week, there has been no shortage of those. Because – whisper it – the death of our longest serving monarch has thrown up some brilliant, if unintentional, comic moments.
We must thank many businesses for their participation in some beautiful moments of farce. Bless you, Ann Summers, purveyors of crotchless knickers and battery powered appliances, for the crunching gear change in tone as you redesigned your online homepage to show a photograph of the young Queen, bordered in black, and accompanied by the message “Thank you, Your Majesty” above pictures of scantily clad women, a range of lubricants, and an accessory that, judging by its size, would bring a tear to the eye of even the most adventurous among us.
And thank you, too, Center Parcs, for scripting a farce that began with the announcement that you would be throwing all guests out of your holiday resorts on the day of the Queen’s funeral as “a mark of respect” before the remarkable plot twist (hastily inserted after a justifiable outcry from those who had paid for holidays) where you relented and announced they would be allowed to remain on-site, but would have to remain inside their lodges for the day. “Come to Center Parcs for the very best in house arrest” might not be the most appealing sales pitch, but it certainly lifted the moods of those of us who had not booked.
I salute your dignity, Morrisons Supermarkets, with your baffling decision to lower the volume of your checkout beeps while a nation grieves. And bless you Vue Cinemas for announcing you would be screening the royal funeral at locations across the country, but, as a mark of respect, would not be selling popcorn. This sudden concern for the concept of respect will have especially amused anyone who’s seen how much cinema chains normally charge for a bag of Revels.
But perhaps my favourite attempt to performatively grieve came from the organisers of Guinea Pig Awareness Week, who announced the rescheduling of the event. I know the Queen was, famously, a great lover of Corgis, but I hope it’s not impudent to suggest she would have been OK with people being aware of guinea pigs in the aftermath of her passing.
Yes, death – whether of a Queen or someone you actually knew – is a serious business. Grief – real, raw grief – is a wound that can infect the whole body. And that’s why laughter is so very important. Those moments of hilarity that shatter the stillness are, as the saying goes, the best medicine.
Anyone – whether prince or pauper – who has lost someone precious knows this to be true.
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