Guest post: "When I go, tell the truth about me"
David Baddiel argues that if all you can say when a family member dies is that they were wonderful - you may as well say nothing
Comedian and novelist
Posted on: Thu 12-May-16 16:04:00
(17 comments )
What is family, above all? It's a space, I think, in which you can feel fully known. Everywhere else, particularly now that everyone has gone public, you're liable to find yourself misrepresented: but with your parents, your partners and your children, you hope that the image they hold of you in their heads is more or less a correct reflection of who you actually are. In my family, we think, I am properly mirrored.
Until you die, I've noticed. Once you die, our society seems to think that everybody, including all your relatives left behind, are supposed to just say you were wonderful. You, apparently, were the most wonderful mother, husband, father, wife, pet-owner, neighbour, cautious driver and good citizen. Anything else at the funeral pulpit is sacrilege.
Well: that isn't what I want. When my mum died, I didn't want to hear from all those people telling me at her funeral that she was wonderful. Because it flattened out who she was. It made her just like all the other endless angelic dead. If that's all you can say about those who have gone, you may as well say nothing.
My mother, you see, was bonkers. She was a spotlight-grabbing, sex-obsessed, hilarious crazy. For example: in the middle of her life, she became massively interested in golf. But she didn't play golf. That didn't stop her filling the house with golf memorabilia, and starting a golfing memorabilia business called Golfiana. This was not, it turned out, because of the pure joys of life out on the links. It was because she had fallen in love with a golfing memorabilia salesman. Who, by the way, was not my father.
When my mum died, I didn't want to hear from all those people telling me at her funeral that she was wonderful. Because it flattened out who she was. It made her just like all the other endless angelic dead.
Now. This may seem not how you're meant to remember one's dear departed mother. But trust me, this – an aspect of her life I celebrate in my new show, My Family: Not The Sitcom – brings her back to life much more radically than saying she was wonderful.
The show, really, is about memory: about how we want to be remembered. It is also about my dad, who has dementia. I talk about that too, because again my sense is that erasing that out of his history is just propaganda. And the truth is – I'm a bit nuts about that truth thing – that some aspects of my dad's condition are funny. He has Pick's Disease, a type of dementia that involves not just short-term memory loss, but also sexual disinhibition, extreme rudeness, impatience, and swearing. When the neurologist first told me this list of symptoms, I said: sorry does he have a disease, or have you just met him?
Because my dad has always been like that. Imagine Roger Mellie, a bit more sweary, and Welsh, that's my dad. So the dementia hasn't robbed us of who he is, it's exaggerated who he is. And while there is sadness in that, there is comedy too.
It doesn't of course truly matter how we are remembered, as the person who might really care about it is dead, and therefore, unlikely to be upset either way. However, I also believe that the only way we do carry on existing after death is in the minds of our loved ones, and therefore, we may as well get that image right. When I go, I'd like to think that my kids will get up on that sad height and tell the truth about me. And that should involve – that will involve, if I remember my own life correctly – taking the piss.
David Baddiel performs My Family: Not the Sitcom at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory 10th May -25th June. To win two tickets for a performance of your choice, subject to availability, look out for the giveaway on Twitter by following @Mumsnet.
By David Baddiel
I like this idea. I always feel like I'm betraying my mum by saying anything that isn't glowing and positive about her, but actually she was a very complex person with a lot going on. She wasn't a doting supermum, she was a real rounded person with issues and frustrations. Remembering her as she was and not as some polished photoshopped version of herself shouldn't be seen as disrespectful.
Totally get this and agree. I lost my mum a few years back. Everyone spoke about her at the funeral as if she was this wonderful faultless person. She was full of faults, just like all of us. Her parenting style especially....
Totally agree. My relationship with my mother has become quite dinstant since my fathers death ten years ago. She has canonized his memory to the point that I don't recognize the man she talks about. In fact he wasn't at all a nice person and I struggle to listen to her anymore.
We had wonderful services for both MIl and DM where the speakers brought out their eccentricities, albeit lovingly, and the congregations roared with laughter and appreciation. Def not flattened.
ITA, I went to a funeral recently where the deceased was described as a wonderful father, this wasn't true and the effects are still obvious in his children.
It annoyed me at the time that it was said, I don't understand the wish to ignore the truth. You don't need to say something negative, just don't lie.
In constrast I once went to a funeral where one of the children said in the eulogy that they didn't see their father as a child as he was always at work - much more preferable imo
Totally agree, share memories of daft things they said or did. Remember the whole person not just the good bits but without going too far. No one wants a character assassination as a eulogy just a bit of realism. As long as it's done with love and humour, it will be fine.
I remember watching a film about you and it showed all your mother's golf memorabilia!
I don't think we deal with death well in our society and eulogising the dead is part of that.
Children/teenagers learn about the beginnings of life, but no one tells how to prepare for death - one's own death and that of our loved ones.
I'm sorry your dad has Pick's Disease - that is a truly awful illness.
When my stepdad died the vicar at the crematorium( who had never met him) spoke of him as a great family man. In reality he was a mean spirited bully who made mum's life a misery but I suppose it would not have been appropriate to say so.
We fully subscribe to this in our family. My mother was a hugely popular, loved and admired member of our community. She was also a most unwilling , drank too much, could hold a grudge for years and was quick to anger.
People will forgive your faults if the good outweigh the bad. To describe my mother as some sort of a saint would do her a disservice. Her faults helped to make her who she was.
At my nans funeral, the vicar was more of a family friend rather than a vicar we only saw at weddings and Christenings. We requested that he told the truth. He had the church smiling as he recalled my nans whiskey habit!
Sometimes the faults aren't worth a mention as the good outweighs it.
Reminds me of the poem Poem by Simon Armitage:
^Here's how they rated him when they looked back
Sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that^
Hope your show has a good run. You know how your obit will read, no doubt, but hopefully it will mention your work with CALM and writing novels like The secret purposes, rather than focussing on selling out Wembley arena and being an avid football fan (not that there's anything wrong with the latter two).
Just read your Guardian Q&A.
In reply to: to whom would you most like to say sorry to and why? You are quoted as saying: my parents for my new show.
Was it just a tongue-in-cheek retort that doesn't come across as well in print/or a quick standard plug for the show?
I ask because in relation to your guest post above, there would be no apology necessary.
My uncle began his part of my Nanna's eulogy with, 'My mother was a thief...'
I totally agree!
At my grandfather's funeral my mum and I ended up with tears running down our faces, not from sorrow but from suppressed shock/mirth.. The preacher who gave the eulogy , well let's say it was obvious he'd never met the womanising, abusive and child-hating old man.
My GM insisted on a service at the chapel they'd married in (but never been back to in 56 years) and then en route to the crematorium said he wanted to be buried, not cremated.
Love this. Platitudes just negate people's true selves. I hope, when I die, that people have more in their minds than 'nice'. I know that when I've been at funerals the version of the person described is not the person I had known. Weird.