How do you hold a funeral service with the country in lockdown? Where there’s a will – and a tech-savvy uncle – there’s a way, Erin Kavanagh-Hall discovered.
I was floating somewhere in the Cook Strait when I heard my grandfather’s funeral had been cancelled.
I should elaborate. It was a Monday, and my mum, stepdad Bill and I had not long boarded the Bluebridge, the car in the decks below, headed for Picton. Grandad had died the Thursday before, after a four-month-long battle with cancer. His funeral was scheduled for Tuesday, March 24 (exactly a month after his 86th birthday – his last on the planet), in Rangiora, north of Christchurch, where he and Grandma had lived for the past two decades.
With cases of Covid-19 rearing their heads all over the country, Mum had booked us a passage down south via ferry – easier (or so we thought) to keep our distance from people than on a plane or at an airport. When, on the Saturday before we were due to leave, the government announced New Zealand was stepping up to alert level two, I found myself agonising over what seemed like a Sophie’s Choice: do I attend the funeral, knowing a case of Covid-19 had been confirmed in Wairarapa, where I live, and that I stood a slim chance of causing a community outbreak in North Canterbury? Or opt out, and break my grandmother’s heart? Both were equally terrifying.
Mum was similarly anxious, but decided to take the risk. How do you say no to your own father’s funeral? Still, she took precautions: packing us a lunch of cheese and relish sandwiches for the ferry trip, loading up the chilly bin and the thermos for a roadside picnic and making sure we each had a pair of disposable gloves for the handrails.
Monday rolled around, and we boarded the ferry without incident. We set sail at 1.30pm, the same time Jacinda Ardern was due to make her next Covid-19 update. We were barely 10 minutes out of Wellington harbour when the prime minister went live, joining us from Mum’s iPad screen.
And there it was. New Zealand had stepped up to level three. Level four, and lockdown, within 48 hours. All non-essential businesses to shut their doors. Schools to close. All indoor and outdoor events to cease.
Five minutes later, a text from Rangiora. Grandad’s funeral was cancelled.
Monday, November 4, 2019, has gone down in family history as Black Monday. Grandad had been in Christchurch Hospital since the previous evening, having complained of severe stomach pain. Grandma drove in to see him, but had to park several blocks away. While walking past Hagley Park, her foot caught in a dip in the grass. Down she went, rolling her ankle. No one stopped to help. She picked herself up, dusted herself off, and hobbled down to the hospital.
There, she and Grandad got the news: bowel and liver cancer, terminal, a matter of weeks. “Your best option, Mr Alford, is to go home, and we’ll arrange on-call palliative care, and the district nurses will come and check on you.” Grandma limped back to the car, in shock, her foot black and swollen. At my aunt’s insistence, she made a doctor’s appointment the next day. She had a Jones fracture – four weeks in a moon boot.
Grandad was philosophical – he’d had 85 years, 62 of them married to “the most amazing woman”. Yet, he was determined to leave this earth on his own terms. He made it to Christmas. And saw in the New Year. And, in February, celebrated his and Grandma’s birthdays. Two weeks before his birthday, he even managed to fight off a grave lung infection, which landed him back in hospital and right at death’s door.
He bounced back, and blessed us with another six weeks. Grandma was by his side the whole time: getting him out of bed and dressed every morning; making tea, toast and her famous desserts; making sure he was able to potter around the house, read The Press from cover to cover, and check his email as, well, normal.
I got to spend his birthday with him in Rangiora – I told him how strong and brave he was. “We make them tough in this family,” I smiled. “I don’t know about that, my darling,” he replied. “But we look after each other. And if I didn’t have your grandma looking after me, I’d be long gone.”
Flash forward to the next Black Monday – March 23, 2020. No funeral, and my parents and I were stuck between two islands. I’ll admit that based on my earlier fears (unwittingly catching and passing on Covid-19 to a chapel full of people), I was initially relieved.
Then the despair set in. My darling grandad wouldn’t get the send-off he deserved. Our whānau were cheated out of the chance to say our final goodbyes. My 81-year-old grandma, grieving for the man she loved since she was 17, cheated out of closure. We found out later she couldn’t even see him in his coffin – after the PM’s announcement, the funeral home wouldn’t let her in the building. She got a fleeting glimpse of the casket through the glass before it headed to the crematorium. She and my uncle had painted the casket themselves: ivory, with stained wooden handles.
For Mum, the priority was getting home. We briefly discussed the possibility of driving down to at least pay Grandma a visit. But, there was talk of road blocks, which would leave us stranded, and me separated from my husband back home in Masterton, for four weeks. Mum and Bill went online to get us an earlier sailing back to Wellington, but the Bluebridge site was swamped. I was having panic attacks – silently, not to worry my folks. The rhythm of the boat, coursing over the water, helped. Mum kept it together, but I could tell she was crushed. “I can’t even say goodbye to my dad”, I heard her mutter to Bill.
We disembarked just after 5pm, and headed to the Bluebridge terminal – my parents had to yell their booking number across the room, attempting to keep a two metre distance. Fully booked, they were told. Our only option was the original plan: sail back to Wellington at 2pm on Wednesday, and hope like hell I could catch the last train back home before the lockdown. Until then, as Bill put it, we just had to sit tight and “enjoy the delights of Picton”.
Mum managed to book us into a hotel. We got a suite with three bedrooms and a glorious view of the harbour; the Bluebridge and Interislander coming and going. We were lucky. We saw other families sleeping in their cars. In the lounge room, we ate snacks from the chilly bin, drank wine and beer from the Bottle-O across the road (before it closed down) and chatted about times gone by. Later, in the privacy of my own room, I allowed myself to break down.
The next morning, we awoke to a gorgeous day in Picton, and news from Rangiora. There would be a service for Grandad after all.
There had been some discussion of the celebrant coming over to do a small family service in my grandparents’ garden, but she was strongly advised to stay home, so that idea was scrapped. Our plans changed yet again. My uncle, a school technology teacher, suggested we do what the 21st century does best: use the internet. The Rangiora whānau would gather at Grandma’s; we in Picton would join them via FaceTime; and the celebrant would phone in and do the service via Skype. A send-off, social distancing style.
After a few teething problems, we got FaceTime working on Mum’s phone and we could see everyone (Grandma, my aunt, two cousins, and my uncle, in his best suit) in my grandparents’ lounge room. Uncle Howard had set up two laptops – one for FaceTime and one for Skype, cast to the TV. The celebrant (and my grandparents’ neighbour for several years), a soft-spoken Englishwoman, smiled at us from the screen; my grandparents smiled from their Golden Wedding portrait, hung directly above. Grandma had arranged the flowers intended for the coffin (white lilies, red roses and gerberas) on a side table. Mum propped up her phone against the chilly bin handle, so we could watch hands-free.
As originally planned, we kicked off at 11am. The celebrant conducted the service sitting in her library. She read the eulogy the whānau had prepared – sharing Grandad’s love for cricket, skiing on Aoraki/Mount Cook and ballroom dance, for which he won medals in his youth. When he first met Grandma, he lived in Bryndwr, and she on the other side of town in New Brighton, so he caught two busses to visit her. He was a keen golfer, made home-brew beer in the garage, and was most chuffed with his veggie garden – especially his cherry tomatoes, potatoes and onions. He was very proud of his “girls”, the six women in his life – Grandma, their two daughters, and three granddaughters.
As planned, I read a poem I wrote for Grandad’s birthday. So many memories. Sneaking us a peppermint from his lolly jar after dinner. His famous hugs (“big squeezes”) before bedtime. Teaching me the Cockney alphabet and introducing me to Pink Floyd. The year he and Grandma came to visit Mum, Dad and I while we were living in England, punting on the Cam River, listening to the King’s College choir. Him and I sharing a waltz at my year 13 leavers’ ball. Him reading every article and column I wrote when I became a community newspaper editor. He said my writing reminded me of his dad (Grandad Erle – the great-grandfather I never met), a gifted wordsmith who wrote letters home while stationed in the Pacific during World War 2.
We even sang the hymns Grandma and Grandad had chosen (Abide With Me and Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer), with Howard playing the backing tracks from Spotify. It was perfect. I didn’t cry during the service; I felt guilty at the time. Looking back on it, my strongest emotion was gratitude. Overwhelming, giddy gratitude. Thanks to some quick thinking, and the beauty of technology, we got to say goodbye. As Grandma often said of things that were homemade: “better than a bought one”.
Wednesday arrived, and we were headed home. Our sailing was delayed by an hour, so I missed the train. Calm and collected, my parents drove me over the Remutaka Hill back to Masterton and back into my husband’s arms. I hope our marriage is as long and loving as my grandparents’. They set the gold standard.
For our whānau, this was a lesson in improvisation and resourcefulness. And resilience. Something I believe Grandad personified. He didn’t have the easiest upbringing. At age nine, he lost his eye after an accident with a barbed wire fence. In his later years, his health suffered from severe asthma and complications from a hip replacement. He and Grandma lived through the Canterbury earthquakes. And his final illness, which he faced with courage and dignity.
Mum said Grandad would tell her, throughout her teenage doubt and frustration, “no matter what, always do your best”. In our hour of darkness, we did our best. We did what we could, used what we had and, at different ends of the South Island, had a funeral for a good man in the midst of a global pandemic and an impending quarantine. And for that, I think Grandad would be proud.
Rest easy, Grandad. I’ll remember you, and your impromptu, long-distance funeral, for the rest of my days. Shine on, you crazy diamond.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.