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May you gambol in the fields of paradise

A eulogy on the death of Hilda Mary Craxford (1916 - 2003)


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I wrote this article for inclusion in one of the social forums ("Do you believe in life after death") that were running on an internet opinion site (CIAO) at the time that my mother died. The content is highly personal - I make no apology for that - and even though it is now nearly three years since I wrote it my feelings remain solidly the same. My non de plume, Newfloridian, is also my CIAO user name. The article attracted 20 comments at the time it first appeared.

- Alan D Craxford

A death in the family

I buried my mother today. Well, it was a simple service at the local Crematorium. It was a sad occasion made all the more poignant by the tiny congregation in attendance. Her death last week at the age of 87 years was not unexpected and in many ways was a relief. It was perhaps the vicar asking for some information about her to put together the eulogy that gave me cause for thought, to reflect on her life and to ponder anew the overall meaning of things. It made me realise just how long ago it was since I remembered her for who she was.

A difficult path through life

Hilda's parents: George and Miriam Cook

George and Miriam Cook

The infant Hilda

The infant Hilda

I cannot say that she had the happiest of lives. Her own mother died of puerperal fever shortly after she was born (a not uncommon victim of the age). Her father married again and she was sent to live with a relatively elderly aunt and uncle whose two sons were grown up. There were bitter rivalries between the branches of the family and she did not see her father again until she was in her early 20s. She married my father in 1940 who was then promptly called up and served the next five years with the Desert Rats in the North Africa campaign, Egypt and Italy. Her aunt died a few months after Mum married and she stayed on to look after her uncle for the duration of the war. By all accounts father had a "wonderful" war and his mementoes were his most treasured possessions. They were strangers when he was demobbed and they celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary.

Young Hilda

Young Hilda (about 1918)


Holiday, Jacksdale 1933

Life was difficult in post-war Britain. First I, then my sister, came along. There was a string of elderly relatives (grandparents, aunts, uncles) who became infirm and then passed away. Father became a commercial traveller and spent periods away. Mother would have liked to have travelled but Father had experienced all he wanted of the sights of Europe during his Army days. Family holidays were based around a caravan in Cornwall or a hotel in Brighton. Later they did spend time touring Scotland. Her first experience of air travel was in the late 1970s - her first trip out of the country was at my sister's suggestion in the early 1980s.

Father was a difficult character to live with; a strict disciplinarian who brooked no argument. Everyone knew (or so he declared) their place. Children kept their noses to the grindstone educationally (we both went to Grammar School and then on to University and College) and financially ("you can earn it if you want money in your pocket") with paper round and Saturday job. Mother was the home maker. She was a token churchgoer and nominal Anglican, a member of the Young Wives Association. She had a small circle of friends - most of them now dead; a few living afar. She enjoyed the music of Gilbert and Sullivan - a pleasure passed down from her father who was a passionate performing Savoyard - a pleasure which she has also passed on to me. Apart from that she read a lot and embroidered a little. My sister and I went our separate ways and flew the coop, first to higher education, then employment and then to marriages. It has to be said that our choices of venue were as much a response to our previous family lives as attractions of the town or city that we found ourselves in.

Hilda 1935

Hilda (1935)

A wedding group 1940

Hilda married George Craxford

George Craxford in uniform

Called up 1940

A life of progressive infirmity

358 Fosse Road North, Leicester, the family home

The family home

Alan and Brenda, the children

The children (About 1951)

During this time, Mother's health did start to suffer. She had been born with a congenital hip problem which progressed to arthritis when she was in her 40s. By the early 1970s she had had both hips replaced. At the same time she was developing osteoporosis. This caused increasing and variable backache as she slowly lost height. Father continued working (his choice) until he was nearly 70. Then in 1994 catastrophe occurred. She occluded her artery of Adamkiewicz. This is a variable blood vessel in the lower part of the back which supplies blood to the spinal cord. She had experienced a spinal stroke which left her with paraplegia. She was assessed by surgeons, neurologists, neurosurgeons, physicians, geriatricians, physiotherapists - but to no avail. Despite their best efforts with rehabilitation and management she never walked again. She was transferred from hospital to nursing home as she was too heavy a nursing burden for Father to look after. In that first period she was in care for nearly three years. During that time, her memory began to fail.

Then she was declared fit enough to be allowed to live at home again with Father with a Social Services Care package (she would be got up, washed and dressed in the morning, someone would clean once a week, meals on wheels would be provided, she would be put to bed in the evening). She was at home (chair or bed fast) for two years as it became evident that she was developing a dementia. In 1999 she fell out of bed, sustaining a fracture of the thigh. Her physical condition then was poor and we thought that she would not survive. The broken bone was repaired by a plate and about thirteen screws - which at least made her nursing care easier. She was clearly unfit to go home and went back into a nursing home.

Kenilworth Road, Monkseaton, Tyneside

Home in Monkseaton

Preston Towers Nursing Home

The Nursing Home

Her dementia deepened. It was only when we realised that she was living her life back in the 1930s that her conversations had any meaning. Father visited her most days but he was becoming increasingly frail too. As he reached his 86th year he had to accept that he was unable to live in the house by himself or to drive safely any more. After a fall, he moved into the same nursing home. They celebrated their diamond wedding (after a fashion). He lived for another six months. We don't think that Mother ever fully realised that he had gone as her mental experiences were all centred on times and places even before they had met. She had no concept of the present or her surroundings.

Last summer she had a series of mini-strokes. This had two effects; it destroyed her distant memory (takings away the 1930s) and it robbed her of the power of speech. By this time too, she was bed fast and was fading away physically. She developed sores of her back and - worse - her heels. She was aware of us when we visited but she could not speak to us. It is not clear that she understood our conversations with her but she was clearly agitated. The sores, and her condition in general, deteriorated although because of the paraplegia it is unlikely that she actually felt any pain. She lapsed into a coma last weekend and died last Monday.

Continued in column 2...

A Question Of Belief

So where does this all leave me? And where is the relevance to this category? I have to declare that spiritually I am a lapsed agnostic. I am scientifically trained. I have spent my working life with the ill and the injured. I have seen death in many guises over the years. I have not seen, read or otherwise anything that has encouraged me to believe that there is a life after death.

A close friend of mine is an Evangelical Christian. His is a simplistic but total faith - he believes in Jesus and the Redemption of Souls. "Believe in Christ and you will be saved". In some ways I envy his devotion. I am well aware of the Book of Revelation - the last book of the New Testament - reputedly written by St John on the Island of Patmos. It is a book of prophecy and describes the end of the world, Armageddon, the fate of man and the second coming of Christ setting up His eternal Church. It is obviously an ancient text. As a work of fiction it would be far more terrifying than anything conjured up by Bram Stoker, HP Lovecraft or Steven King. I have also kept pace with the American Evangelical series "Left Behind" which is a fictionalisation of the story of the Revelation by LaHaye and Jenkins.

It is an unfortunate truth that organised religion is a man-made phenomenon. Ancient man needed an explanation of things, natural, unnatural and preternatural. A supernatural being was an obvious concept to praise, blame or direct pleas. The trappings and rituals that developed (usually by a privileged class) in many respects to obfuscate the devotees. Early religions were based on polytheism (multiple gods - often specialising in the care of certain facets of human existence). Often the slaying of a human being was seen as a way of placating or pleasing a deity. Many cultures assumed that the victim would enter directly the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians developed very complicated rituals designed to gain a place in paradise.

The more "modern" monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) developed from a common root with a belief in a single deity. Each one has its philosophy of paradise, life after death and redemption of souls. Some believe in a physical heaven, a physical resurrection, physical rewards for action in this life. Some believe in a passage through Purgatory for the cleansing sin to a state of purity. Some describe heaven as a place of eternal singing and praising of God; some describe the afterlife as the preparation for the final battle between good and evil. Each one has its own concept of 'The One God'. This leads to obvious plot holes. The 'One God' of the Jews must be the same 'One God' of Islam and of Christianity. If there is a God it is most unlikely that He would have established religions so diverse that they would be so obviously at loggerheads with one another. What would have been the point? Similarly the ultimate goal of God would be the same in terms of the after life, paradise, heaven and redemption. How could we mere mortal humans be so presumptuous as to ascribe other goals for Him?

But, you don't need religion - organised or otherwise - to justify an afterlife. Neither do you need a concept of paradise. You could become a spirit or ghost or other extracorporeal being that frequents the aether. You could be reincarnated on to this earth - either in human form, passing through various stages until you reach a state of perfection; or in a nonhuman form. You could pass from one parallel universe to another. We could all be part of an infinite loop forever playing the same role over and over from the beginning to the end of time. It appears so easy (and for some, comforting) to seek solace in ectoplasmic manifestations, automatic writing, séances, regressive hypnotherapy, out of body experiences.

I am aware of the existential utterances of such worthies as Sartre. It is quite likely that we should make the best of our lot, of the cards that we have been dealt. It does not explain or exonerate the state of people who were born deprived (physically, mentally or economically) or those who have had deprivation thrust upon them through no fault of their own. It is tempting to believe that there ought to be a better place once we have shuffled off this mortal coil - or at least that we should have the chance to go round again with a different hand.

Diamond wedding cake and greeting card from the Queen
Mother and daughter
George reads a greeting

The Diamond wedding: Card from the Queen and cake; Hilda with Brenda; George reads a greeting

An end to eulogy ...

My mother has died. Her life was long but never exciting and, particularly towards the end, was a trial both for her and for the people around her. Oh yes, I loved her; I love the memory of her; I thank her for giving me life. I miss my mother but then again I have missed her for such a long time because of her illness. I am so sorry for the way her quality of life deteriorated and I am glad and grateful that her misery is at an end. I don't know whether she believed in an afterlife - I do not recall us ever having discussed the subject. It does however raise for me the whole matter again of just what a life is for. Regardless of the arguments I still keep returning to the same conclusion.

Preston Cemetery gates
The Chapel

Preston Cemetery: The Gates and the Chapel

Book of Remembrance
Garden of Remembrance

Preston Cemetery: Book and Garden of Remembrance

... And a final prayer

So Mum, I trust you are at peace. You at least will now know the answer. Maybe I should hope that this agnostic has got it wrong. May you, at long last, have found happiness and can gambol in the fields of paradise.

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Page added here: July 2006
Last updated: March 14th 2012

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