My brother and I interred our late uncle’s ashes shortly before my six week visit to London ended.

I took no photographs of the ceremony;

‘I wanted to stay focused’ I use as my excuse to myself; if truth be told, I completely forgot.

The afternoon was clear and sunny.

The cemetery, well hidden in a tiny village in Shoreham-by-sea, was wrapped within a circle of houses; rather resembling a university quad.  It was quiet and intimate.

He chose it because the flight path for small aircraft taking off from Shoreham Airport where he flew, was directly above the headstones and memorials tucked into the pristine lawns.

I was told that he’d wanted his ashes scattered along the grass verge adjacent to the airfield where he’d pull his car over to smoke a final cigarette before taking up his plane, but that was hearsay.

In his will he stated that he wanted his ashes interred nearby at Mill Hill Cemetery.

I bought the plot and made arrangements.

I had brought his ashes in a carrier bag,

well, they were actually in a box in a carrier bag,

and Hubs, my brother and I parked along the field.

I had been told by the undertakers that the grave digger would be there.

I saw a man wearing a yellow reflector jacket and walked towards him.  As I approached I smiled before asking a question I never thought I’d ask,

“Are you the grave digger?”

“Yes’m,” he said and gave me a gappy-toothed, but friendly smile.

“Right over there,” he said pointing to several rows of memorial stones covered in flowers.

I turned to look in the direction he was pointing,

“It’s got green carpet over it,” he continued, “take your time.”

I nodded.

“I’ll just be here,” he gestured to an old wooden shed ” and I’ll fill it in when you’re finished.”

“Thank you,” I said and attempted a literary quip, “this is all very Bronte-esque.”

He turned to the shed and pushed through its creaky door the comment lost on him.

I approached the grave noticing that some earth had been left in a pot for us to throw our handfuls in at the end of our service and waited for the others to join me.

Hubs walked over with my brother who was chatting to a young man and woman; friends of our uncle’s and the only people we’d invited to the interment.

“James,” the young man said holding out his hand, “and my mother, JulieAnn.”  I shook both hands and unnecessarily introduced myself.

Tony wouldn’t have wanted a fuss, definitely not a party and Vincent and I made our decision to invite the two people he was closest to during the last years of his life.

The graveside service was very personal.  I think he would have approved.

Hubs was the celebrant and in keeping with my uncle’s wishes, he scattered the ashes directly into the grave.

During the short time we were there we noticed that the flight path was indeed right over our heads…

…a gentle drone of small planes accompanied our voices,

a fitting dirge.

A perfect setting for a very private man.

I wondered if he had visited this spot before and sat in the quiet.

James read his eulogy, a beautiful remembering of a gentle man.

In it he  told us that he had known Tony since he was 14.  Too young to work he’d hung around at the airport washing planes, hoping to be noticed, wishing he could be invited to fly.  The pilots paid him by contributing to a fund which he was able to access when he was older.  Boldly he had approached Tony several times to ask if he could take him up in his plane.  My uncle, impressed by the personable young man, eventually agreed once he’d met his grandfather and been given permission.  Thus began a sixteen year friendship and mentorship that deepened over the years and changed both their lives.

JulieAnn read a few words and described him as an angel on earth; I’d read some of her cards to him during the clearing out of his house before I met her and knew that’s how she referred to him,

“He’d shake his head,” she said, “and turn away brushing off the sentiment,” she recalled, “but that’s what he was.”

Tony had encouraged James to go to flight school and later, when James had his license, he’d taken him up when he could no longer fly alone to

‘dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings;’ (John Magee Jr. High Flight)

As I listened to the words both of them spoke it was evident that they knew a different man to the one I knew growing up.  I felt a fleeting sadness as I considered how different all of our lives could have been had he not been so reserved.  I was sorry that my children had not been a part of his life.  At the same time I was happy that Tony had found companionship and joy with the few friends he’d allowed to get close.

After the service we each placed a handful of soil over the ashes.

JulieAnn threw in a silver angel with hers and James poured in some of Tony’s favourite whisky tossing the empty miniature in with his.

We chatted for a while afterwards but neither of them could stay for lunch.

We dispersed promising to keep in touch. James took with him a small silver flask containing some of the ashes to tuck into his pocket whenever he flew…a promise he’d made on Tony’s deathbed.

Whether we’ll ever meet again remains to be seen.

On his Memorial Stone I’ve had inscribed:

‘an angel on earth’

and two lines from his favourite poem by John Magee Jr.

‘Oh!  I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth and put out my hand and touched the face of God.’  

The memorial stone won’t be ready for 4-5 months and I’m planning on going back and perhaps extending an invitation – to those who knew him through his company, Creative Instrumentation – to gather around his stone and remember him.

Maybe then I’ll take some pictures.

Rest in Peace AJB.

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2022-06-08 15:05:21 Reply

that was so good and now my eyes are filled with tears yet again! God Bless you Tony. I am fortunate to have met and known you. Smooth flying! LM

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