Last week a family lost their grandmother. She was old. She was frail. But she was loved.
Unlike many of us, this family’s mourning was judged and scrutinised in real-time by a global audience. Every word, tear, and outfit parsed. Interpreted. Second-guessed. Imagine what that must be like.
I remember the funeral of my grandmother many years ago. In life, she had been a difficult woman. In death, she proved no different.
A pre-purchased burial plot, situated alongside the husband she had laid to rest several decades earlier. Located in a small country town she had left behind almost as long ago.
The mortuarial equivalent of twin beds pushed together. Creating the illusion of togetherness, while maintaining an unconquerable divide. Apt really, given marriage is sometimes defined as being alone together.
Cheaper that way. As a child of the great depression, she could pinch a penny further than most.
Nothing fancy or ornate. No flowery language nor trite cliché on the tombstone. Conciseness had been the order of the day. Terse even. Cheaper that way, monumental masons charge by the letter.
The gravedigger had lifted the slab on the vacant side. Exactingly dug the grave to the standard dimensions. Two metres long. Sixty centimetres wide. Two metres deep.
My grandmother had been a lady of generous proportions, with a lifelong aversion to exercise. She had required a generously proportioned coffin. Which shouldn’t have been a problem. But it was.
The pallbearers lined up at the back of the hearse. Organised by status and standing, rather than height or strength. The result of heated familial discord. A decision they would soon regret.
Dark suits. Sombre ties. Uncomfortable shoes. All out of place amongst the heat shimmers, dusty red earth, and parched drought-ridden grass of the churchyard.
With a mighty heave, the coffin was hoisted upon shoulders, and an ungainly procession headed towards the waiting grave. Two hundred and fifty kilograms of burnished oak and embalmed corpse.
At the head struggled her two sons. Grey of hair. Slight of stature. Breaking into a sweat.
At the foot were two strapping grandsons. Big. Broad. Each nearly a foot taller than their elders.
In the middle scampered a diminutive male relation. What he lacked in size he made up for in vocal opinions.
Opposite towered a lanky family friend. Towering over the assembled mourners. A reluctant participant, embarrassed at being the centre of attention, as unusually tall people so often are.
Collectively, their varied sizes concentrated the weight of the coffin onto the older men at the front. Each looked as though they bore the weight of the world on their shoulders. Because they did!
Those at the back could only shrug and exchange amused grins. You can provide the best advice in the world, but you can’t make people listen. Common sense is so rare, it is a superpower.
The sombre procession may have begun at a dignified pace across the dusty churchyard, but hastened markedly as the fear of dropping the casket transitioned from wild imaginings to likely outcome.
By the time the procession arrived at the graveside, the red-faced pallbearers had sweated through their suits.
A brief respite, as a stammering priest uttered some generic prayers and platitudes about a decedent he had never met, to a god he didn’t believe in. To his way of thinking, religion was one of those open secrets society turned a blind eye to, like the existence of Santa Claus or the chances of winning the lottery. A secret he was happy to indulge. How many other salaried jobs in rural communities offered a benefits package including free room and board, without requiring heavy lifting or working outdoors?
Coffin straps were attached. The pallbearers hefted the vast weight once more, as they began the awkward process of lowering the coffin into the grave.
Immediately it became apparent there was a physics problem. Large coffin. Small grave.
The coffin banged and scraped along the cement sides of the yawning hole in the ground.
Pallbearers jiggling it one way and the other.
Six men frantically attempting to work together. Wordlessly communicating. Attempting to look outwardly dignified as they inwardly panicked that things were about to go horribly wrong.
And go wrong they did.
One of the sons stumbled, the vast weight and awkward angle too much for his bad back to bear.
Webbing straps racing through hands, as his sibling opposite attempted to avert disaster.
The head of the coffin lurched. Tilted. Crashed. Became lodged against the side of the grave.
Stunned looks exchanged amongst the pallbearers. “Oh shit!”
A collective sharp intake of breath amongst the mourners looking on. The priest suppressed a nervous giggle. Somebody cried.
The pallbearers tried to use their staps to gently right the coffin.
Straighten it out. Line it up. Continue its descent into the depths of the Earth.
Then less gently.
Grandma was stuck. Wedged in tight. Having the last word, in death just as in life.
A troubled silence settled over the mourners. Time stood still. In the distance, a kookaburra with beautiful comedic timing laughed at the spectacle.
With a resigned sigh and a wry smile, one of the strapping grandsons at the base of the coffin planted his size 10 dress shoe on the highly polished surface and pushed down hard. Expensive oak splinters sheared off the box as it screeched and grated its way through the cement opening. A dusty red shoe print marked the expensive wooden surface, destined to document the event for all eternity.
The remainder of the funeral was unremarkable.
An unremarkable wake for a lifelong teetotaller. Sober and sombre, as per her wishes. Cheaper that way.
Unremarkable small talk as distant relatives caught up over bad coffee and canapes that nobody ate.
Even the fallout from my grandmother’s death was unremarkable. Which was surprising, given the number of looters who masquerade as mourners at funerals.
Her home had long ago been sold off, disarming the threat of challenges to her legal will upon her demise. Half the proceeds were retained. The rest distributed amongst her favourites.
Her estate had been eroded, then exhausted, by more than a decade of nursing home fees.
Her worldly possessions were long gone. Pilfered and pillaged by looters the moment she moved into a care home. Virtually no correlation existed between those who helped themselves to her possessions and those who helped care for her when she could no longer care for herself.
A decade after her passing, and a second decade since dementia claimed her mind, it would be a lie to say my grandmother was greatly missed. In truth, she is seldom spoken of and rarely remembered. Her name appears on a family tree and a tombstone. An unsmiling face glaring from a handful of old photos. 90+ years of life all but forgotten in less than 20, as the passage of time thins the herd.
Last week a man aged in his early seventies unexpectedly commenced a new job. Unforeseen circumstances banishing any hope of a leisurely retirement indulging interests and pursuing passion projects.
Unlike many of us, that change in circumstance is an actual life sentence. For most pension-aged folks having to re-enter the workforce it only feels like one. Either way, others are dependent upon the work they will perform.
Actuarial average life expectancy tables suggest he has maybe a decade remaining. Wealth and genetics perhaps buying him a little longer.
Imagine what that must be like. A single event dispelling a lifetime’s worth of assumptions. Premises challenged. Values questioned.
How many of our beliefs would hold true were a similarly disruptive life change to occur to us?
How often do we retest our core assumptions, to ensure their happy path still leads us towards where we wish to end up?
My grandmother hadn’t planned on being a widow. Nor of getting dementia.
She had spent a lifetime expecting to be taken care of, first by her parents and then her husband.
Once those crutches were removed, she spent almost as long looking down upon those like her former self, who couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of themselves. Entitled. Feeble. Selfish. Weak.
Until it happened to her, fate dealing a medical diagnosis that upended her world once more.
Cognitive decline a certainty. Competence questionable. Risk tolerance reduced. Timescales truncated.
Each of those factors should have triggered a re-evaluation of her finances.
Were the plans of yesterday still appropriate for the new reality of today?
Did asset allocations align with time horizons?
Did her risk profile correspond to her ability to absorb and recover from a financial shock or setback?
Was the growth versus cashflow bias of her strategy consistent with her foreseeable lifestyle costs?
What actions were required today, or identified for tomorrow, to deliver her required outcome?
In my grandmother’s case this re-evaluation led to simpler arrangements that required fewer decisions. The risks of inflation eroding capital or the opportunity cost of foregone returns instantly replaced by the likelihood of faulty decision making or false friends filching her finances.
It meant letting go of her prized independence.
Being forced to place trust in others to make decisions that were in her best interests.
A difficult transition for a difficult woman, and those around her. Especially given she was fearsomely lucid one minute and trapped in a confused reimagining of her past the next.
My experience with my grandmother made me consciously appreciate the here and now, and understand that not all years are created equal. The average person might expect to live until they are 80, but their last 20 years are unlikely to be nearly as much fun as the first 20 were.
Few of the 70+ year olds I know would be willing to take on a new job or return to the workforce.
Fewer still would be both physically and mentally capable of doing so.
Not a judgement, a statement of fact.
Why somebody would wish to subject themselves to being a politician or a King I have no idea, but to do so when most of their peers are succumbing to the inevitabilities of age is either very brave or very stupid. Only hindsight can tell the difference between the two, until then I wish the new hire the very best of luck in his new vocation.