It should be a Mitford novel, Death in the Time of Coronavirus: so iconic is it of death itself. Never more anticipated: never more unprepared. My father, David Briggs, died last week, aged 102.
Of course he was expecting it: born on the day of the Russian Revolution, 7th November 1917. You don’t live for over a century without thinking of your demise.
Serving others was my father’s lifelong discipline. His last act of public duty was less than a fortnight before, submitting to a gruelling conversation with me about his war experiences for television. As indeed music was: a conscientious objector in the Medical Corps, he organised medics into a choir to sing for patients. The War Office paid for the music and let him keep it: we’ve often sung from the frail, tattered sheets.
Shortly before Christmas, the choir I sing with rehearsed in our house, keeping doors open and later trooping up to his bed-sitting-room with carols (arranged by his dear colleague, David Willcocks).
Tears streamed down his face. “Only now do I appreciate how much we gave the wounded years ago.”
His mind was still acute: every evening, for his last decade, we alternated Latin and Greek together, fulfilling my childhood ambition to read Classics. He could no longer hear tv or radio or see enough to read; he had endure my halting Virgil.
It must have been a living prison. It was so easy to give him music, we immediately made it a regular feature. For Sunday 15th March we had invited singers for dinner.
On Saturday, for the first time ever, he couldn’t be roused to dress. Come home now, I told our children. We sang to him that evening.
It was a huge effort to open his eyes.
Any requests? “Twinkle twinkle,” someone interpreted his barely audible answer. Our daughter’s two-year-old shyly sang it in Norwegian. Then our daughter Lara, who followed him reading Classics at King’s Cambridge, in Latin.
“You’d better mark that,” I said. “Was it correct?”
He just managed, “Mostly.” We laughed.
He was ever impatient. “Why does death take so long?” He apologised repeatedly.
I was due to give Thought for the Day on Tuesday 17th. “I am absolutely not pulling out,” I told my producer: my father never shirked anything. He always liked to have my script. He wanted to hear it. “My father,” I read, “lies at home, dying.”
He smiled. And asked to hear it again.
For a hundred years he had put his faith in Jesus: knew exactly where he was going. For a decade had longed to join my dearest, wonderful mother.
Death held no fear: only longing.
“Please give Mummy a message,” I urged. “Tell her I miss her every day.” I kissed him goodbye and said I’d see him in the morning.
Before breakfast I had to change my script to the past tense.
The stream of comments, condolences, commiseration, hasn’t stopped since.
My father planned his funeral meticulously, at my request. (A friend’s normally-amicable siblings fought like cats over her mother’s.) Two clergy sons-in-law to conduct; four offspring to give tributes; a musician grandson for everything else – an exquisite, beautifully-chosen service: anthems; a psalm; readings; hymns; prayers; instrumental voluntaries.
Rather than a memorial, my father’s inclination (and mine) was for an old-fashioned, immediate funeral in our parish church. Would it prove big enough? We might just spill into the churchyard…
Our musician son Ben updated my father’s wishes less than a week before he died: I had recently written an anthem for both my parents. As soon as I got back from the BBC, Ben (all work cancelled) accompanied me to an undertaker’s.
“Have it as soon as possible,” he advised. “Before lock-down.” Then admitted the quickest he could do was nearly a fortnight. I found another.
By Wednesday the C of E was suspending normal services. Ben consoled me: with gigs, concerts, teaching all cancelled, more musicians might be available. But to recruit and rehearse Elgar, Harris, Stanford, Brahms by Saturday would be frantic.
Then Ben’s orchestra cancelled rehearsals.
I asked the undertaker how long we could delay. With embalming, perhaps eight weeks: everyone predicted less panic by early summer. But my siblings wanted urgent closure… while they could travel. The earliest date was now the following week.
By Thursday, the C of E suggested no singing. By Friday this changed again.
My father was always to have handsome black horses, as my mother had greys. I was still determined he’d go in style… perhaps very quiet style.
“I’ve had brides in tears all week,” the registrar said when we went in on Friday.
Many singers and musicians loved my father. Those not pregnant or living with symptoms still longed to help. On Sunday we had a string quartet, and soloist for Faure’s Pie Jesu; our daughter Rose would play the harp.
On Monday the undertaker said ours was the only funeral not cancelled.
“Have it later at no extra charge,” he suggested generously.
I was profoundly relieved. We could never have done my father justice.
I asked the vicar if we could still use the church. “For free. The least I can do.” Two days later he rang back, apologetic. “Sorry: only the churchyard.”
We would stand round my mother’s grave. Five of us live together: a clergyman, one professional musician, three amateurs. Prayers, readings, a little music…
Far more meaningful for me than a hastily-botched funeral. We could live-stream…
Ben, still arranging my anthem, suggested singers and instrumentalists all record their parts at home. He would over-dub, layering dozens of tracks in an inventive scattered chamber group of connection. To go out on YouTube.
I’d already caught three doves I’d long planned for my great-niece to release at my mother’s grave: my parents flying home together, with the Holy Spirit. We still plan to walk to church; if the rules change today, these might only have to flit across our lawn back to their doo-cot, from the rose garden I planted in my mother’s memory.
My daughter reminded me that a friend died the same week as the Princess of Wales. “I keep remembering what you said: that she was lost in the fuss. As if her death didn’t matter, because she wasn’t famous.”
Strangely, it doesn’t feel like that. More, that we’re all in it together. The country is in mourning… with us in our grief, almost.
Empty streets. Empty church. An empty house. What difference? None of us can get on with anything. Which is precisely what death does.
It puts living on hold.
Anne’s family will be remembering David at 3.30 tomorrow afternoon: go to www.cpjfield.co.uk/services/42856.
For Anne's and Ben's anthem for her parents please go to anneatkins.co.uk/songofsongs
The Secret History of WWII, including David’s contribution, will air on Channel 5 in the summer
Saying goodbye in the time of Corona
By Eleanor Steafel
Are funerals going ahead during lockdown?
While weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies are being halted, funerals are still allowed with limited numbers. There is no official cap, says Deborah Smith, from the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), but numbers should be kept as small as possible.
Will funeral homes remain open?
Yes, but arrangements should be made over the phone or via other electronic means wherever possible. Funeral service employees are key workers, so reducing the spread of Covid-19 to them is important.
Can I still visit my loved one in the Chapel of Rest?
Yes, says the NAFD, if you arrange a specific time and limit the numbers attending at any one time to those living in the same household.
Are funeral limousines still being used?
Only if there is “no alternative option,” advises the NAFD. If used, they should only be used to carry those living in the same household (in line with social distancing guidance).
What is the advice if you are attending a funeral in person?
Guests need to observe social distancing inside the room where the service is being held. “It’s desperately difficult,” says Smith, “ so much harder that you can’t go and give somebody a hug.”
What are the alternatives to attending a funeral in person?
Live streaming funerals and the opportunity to carry out a small funeral, and then hold a bigger memorial at a later date. Any charitable collections should be made online.