The funeral home’s jingle

On a personal level, the absurd brings moments of light relief amidst the gnawing frustration and deep desire to escape

Every crisis has its absurd moments. Think back to Leo DiCaprio’s character in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. He played Jordan Belfort. In a scene depicting an office party that one hoped was the stuff of fiction, he organised a ‘dwarf-throwing’ contest. This was the apotheosis of pre-2008 financial capitalism.

In a scene that will come to define the excess and pitiful behaviour of the early 2000s, men with dwarfism are thrown against a velcro dart board for thousands of dollars. Why? The scene is known as the ‘They’re Built to be Thrown” scene; they were thrown because obscenely rich, over-grown kids got to rule financial markets.

In Apocalypse Now, the definitive Vietnam War movie, men are driven to the most extraordinary levels of psychosis in 1970 South Vietnam & Cambodia. This collective madness is brought to life by Marlon Brandon, Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall. Duvall’s character, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, proudly declares, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” while chaos surrounds him as women file out from bombed-out paddy fields.

What absurd moments have we had served up so far, not as fiction, but as fact in this Coronavirus crisis? Well, we can hardly bandy around words like “chaos” and “absurd” without mentioning one Donald J Trump. The less said about him, the better. Just remember the words “disinfectant” and “injection”.

There are the moments we might reflect in hindsight weren’t wise, but were in fact highly dangerous: deciding to go ahead with the Cheltenham Cup; letting Atletico Madrid play Liverpool at Anfield in the Uefa Champions League and so on. They’re not absurd as such, since there’s no humour to be derived from seeing so many people herded into pens and terraces – exposing themselves to what now at least seemed almost certain infection.

One difference from the Hillsborough 31-years earlier, is that this disaster played out in slow motion. We may never know how many of the 294 deaths (to date) from Covid-19 in the Liverpool NHS Trust were caused, directly or indirectly, by the decision to play that Atletico-Liverpool last-16 fixture in mid-March.

On a personal level, the absurd brings moments of light relief amidst the gnawing frustration and deep desire to escape.

Grandma’s care home, The Mead in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, has confirmed Coronavirus cases. At first, a month ago, they advised two residents had tested positive. Apparently, one of them was hospitalised and, we understand, later died. Since then, the home hasn’t provided a running commentary, for no doubt sound reasons. When I asked the regulator, the Care Quality Commission, what information we could expect the care home to share, they advised the home wasn’t obliged to share anything unless our own relative had become unwell.

Cherry Blossom

Grandma’s 96. I’ve written about her on this blog elsewhere. She married four times. She is the least straightforward woman I could ever imagine being related to, and I love her, have always loved her and never ever want to imagine her dying as a result of this bastard disease. But she has to die from something. So do we all. Now, I’m crying.

I want her to have adequate pain-relief, to be comforted. To have the fucking dignity deserved by each-and-every one of us and being denied to so many.

Grandma in her heyday
A photo of my Grandma dancing

We’ve organised a few clumsy calls where a care worker holds their phone close to her gaping mouth, for her to try and make sense of me and my faraway voice from a WhatsApp video. It’s probably scarier than any call she’s received before and I doubt she had any real sense who I was, but I repeated that ‘Leon’ (my Dad) and I love her and my sisters too. And that we’re here for her. But we’re not. We’re thousands of miles apart. I suppose it comforted me, but grimly: a ticked off task on my notepad.

Grandma smile
Visiting Grandma

She looked more like Dad than ever before. Due to old age, her features folded over themselves, and then, there was the yawning chasm of her wide-open mouth – the hole that travels to her intestine and damned belly, which she’s complained about ever since I was a child. But her soft skin was smooth and wondrously free of blemishes. She had the sparkling green and brown eyes that speak of decades of fallibility, and are reservoirs of love.

I phoned Aaran Morriss, the recommended undertaker that Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue work with. In fact, I’d contacted him before, back in December, to be sure we have a plan in place for Grandma for when she dies. This time, I needed to be sure the plan was actionable.

I had questions; would he be able to travel from Hove and transport her for planned burial down on the Old Shoreham Road? What authority would he have to execute these family preferences of ours’ if the crisis gets worse and Hertfordshire insists all local deaths result in local burials – even cremations? Not something we’ve heard mentioned, but the mind wonders. And as Jews, we can’t really nod along to cremations when it’s burials our faith insists on.

Grandma with a new book
My cousin has written a book featuring my grandmother’s aunt.

Mr Morriss was a delightful chap. I joked blithely, ‘business must be good?’ which he accepted with all the silly humour that was intended. But before I could reach Woodvale Crematorium in Brighton, who oversee the burial plots  for the Jewish section of Hove cemetery, he put me on hold. A jolly song – in fact, a jingle – kept me ‘entertained’, as I waited to find out whether as a former resident of Medina Villas, Hove, Grandma would be entitled to discounted residents’ fees for her eventual burial.

Grandma at her care home
Grandma was a very bright woman and sadly she now has dementia

A woman with a perfunctory and businesslike tone took care of me. I also needed to know whether Grandma’s second husband, Harold Wand, who we want her to be buried next to, has a plot spare next to him. She consulted her files. The jingle again. Not greensleeves, but a song not altogether dissimilar.

No, the woman said, we’ve no record of a space for Shirley Little – no record of her having a plot available for her here. I scratched my head and then wondered whether Grandma bought the rights to the plot – I didn’t know one could “own” a burial spot – under one of her other married names. Maybe you have a reservation for a Shirley Sampson, I asked?

The jingle again. ‘No’, the woman responded. ‘Sorry, no.’

Shirley Wand? Shirley Crystol? No. There’s no plot. Speaking of plots, I’ve lost it.

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