Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

In this letter to the renowned British actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, dramatist George Bernard Shaw recounts his mother’s funeral service with humor and affection.

What a day! I must write to you about it, because there is no one else who didn’t hate her mother, and even who doesn’t hate her children. Whether you are an Italian peasant or a Superwoman I cannot yet find out; but anyhow your mother was not the Enemy.

Why does a funeral always sharpen one’s sense of humor and rouse one’s spirits? This one was a complete success. No burial horrors. No mourners in black, snivelling and wallowing in induced grief. Nobody knew except myself, Barker and the undertaker. Since I could not have a splendid procession with lovely colours and flashing life and triumphant music, it was best with us three. I particularly mention the undertaker because the humor of the occasion began with him. I went down in the tube to Golders Green with Barker, and walked to the Crematorium; and there came also the undertaker presently with his hearse, which had walked (the horse did) conscientiously at a funeral pace through the cold; though my mother would have preferred an invigorating trot. The undertaker approached me in the character of a man shattered with grief; and I, hard as nails and in loyally high spirits (rejoicing irrepressibly in my mother’s memory), tried to convey to him that this professional chicanery, as I took it to be, was quite unnecessary. And lo! it wasn’t professional chicanery at all. He had done all sorts of work for her for years, and was actually and really in a state about losing her, not merely as a customer, but as a person he liked and was accustomed to. And the coffin was covered with violet cloth–not black.
I must rewrite that burial service; for there are things in it that are deader than anyone it has ever been read over; but I had it read not only because the parson must live by his fees, but because with all its drawbacks it is the most beautiful thing than can be read as yet. And the parson did not gabble and hurry in the horrible manner common on such occasions. With Barker and myself for his congregation (and Mamma) he did it with his utmost feeling and sincerity. We could have made him perfect technically in two rehearsals; but he was excellent as it was; and I shook his hand with unaffected gratitude in my best manner.
At the passage “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” there was a little alteration of the words to suit the process. A door opened in the wall; and the violet coffin mysteriously passed out through it and vanished as it closed. People think that door the door of the furnace; but it isn’t. I went behind the scenes at the end of the service and saw the real thing. People are afraid to see it; but it is wonderful. I found there the violet coffin opposite another door, a real unmistakable furnace door. When it lifted there was a plain little chamber of cement and firebrick. No heat. No noise. No roaring draught. No flame. No fuel. It looked cool, clean, sunny, though no sun could get there. You would have walked in or put your hand in without misgiving. Then the violet coffin moved again and went in feet first. And behold! The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet coloured lovely flame, smokeless and eager, like pentecostal tongues, and as the whole coffin passed in it sprang into flame all over; and my mother became that beautiful fire.
The door fell; and they said that if we wanted to see it all through, we should come back in an hour and a half. I remembered the wasted little figure with the wonderful face, and said “Too long” to myself; but we went off and looked at the Hampstead Garden Suburb (in which I have shares), and telephoned messages to the theatre, and bought books, and enjoyed ourselves generally.
By the way I forgot one incident. Hayden Coffin suddenly appeared in the chapel. His mother also. The end was wildly funny, she would have enjoyed it enormously. When we returned we looked down through an opening in the floor to a lower floor close below. There we saw a roomy kitchen. with a big cement table and two cooks busy at it. They had little tongs in their hands, and they were deftly and busily picking nails and scraps of coffin handles out of Mamma’s dainty little heap of ashes and samples of bone. Mamma herself being at that moment leaning over beside me, shaking with laughter. Then they swept her up into a sieve, and shook her out; so that there was a heap of dust and a heap of calcined bone scraps. And Mamma said in my ear, “Which of the two heaps is me, I wonder!”
And that merry episode was the end, except for making dust of the bone scraps and scattering them on a flower bed.
O grave, where is thy victory?
In the afternoon I drove down to Oxford, where I write this. The car was in a merry mood, and in Notting Hill Gate accomplished a most amazing skid, swivelling right round across the road one way and then back the other, but fortunately not hitting anything.
The Philanderer, which I came down to see (Mona Limerick as Julia) went with a roar from beginning to end. Tomorrow I drive to Reading and thence across Surrey into Kent to the Barkers. The deferred lunch at the German Embassy will take place on Monday. Unless I find at Adelphi Terrace before 1.15 a telegram forbidding me ever to see you again. I know I shall go straight from the Embassy to your bedside. I must see you again after all these years.
Barrie is in bed ill (caught cold in Oxford a week ago) and ought to be petted by somebody.
I have many other things of extreme importance to say, but must leave them until Monday. By the way you first said you were leaving Hinde St on the 23rd; but you said last time to Lady Jekyll “Another ten days.” If you are gone when I call I shall hurl myself into the area and perish.
And so goodnight, friend who understands about one’s mother, and other things.


*     *

Following his death in 1950, Shaw was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium, London. His ashes were mixed together with those of his wife, the actress Charlotte Payne-Townshend (died in 1943), and scattered in the garden of his home, Shaws Corner. He had lived there from 1906 until his death. The house, now in the care of the National Trust, was opened to the public on the 17th March, 1951 by the actress Dame Edith Evans.




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