The very last time I saw my uncle Dave was quite a while ago, but at least it was at the pub. Last month, myself and his other family and friends gathered, at the same pub, after his funeral. As an industry, we talk all the time about what an intrinsic part of British life the pub is. It dawned on me, as we raised a glass to him, that it also plays a huge and important role in how we cope with death too.
I’m not being morbid. I want to recognise and pay tribute to the many ways in which the pub soothes and heals us at heart-breaking moments. The same pub I refer to above – the Ash Tree in Ashford, Middlesex – was once mine and my parents’ local. It’s also where their wake was held around 10 years ago; in a quiet function room, set aside for us with care and respect for our loss. Both then, and recently, there was also a commendable attitude from the pub manager that enabling us to gather there, for as long as we needed, was a community duty. Not having to worry about how long we had the room for was an immense pressure relieved. I can’t emphasise just how important and valuable that is for grieving relatives and friends.
Comfort of dark humour
When my parents passed, it allowed time for many my father’s old work colleagues and my mum’s friends to speak to me. Each of their stories and memories was like a little gift; a remedy for the pain of loss and something to draw on as I grieved. I especially loved the people who came up and said they never normally drank beer but were having a pint in honour of my dad. It would have pleased and amused him greatly. It also made me recall, long before his time, him giving me some funeral instructions, “I want to go for the big burn and then everyone can get together for a beer and a laugh as if I was still there.” Dark humour, but I knew he meant it. Again there was comfort to be had in following his wishes and doing so in a pub we often went to together. These are the sort of things that get you through the grief and out the other side.
In my uncle’s case, because I no longer live in the town where he lived, it was an enormous relief and comfort to find he had so many friends. Many of them were people who knew him from the pubs they drank in together. Indeed a former landlord of one of the other hostelries he used to frequent was among those who came to pay their respects.
Despite the fact Uncle Dave pretty much shunned the pub until he was in his 40s, it became central to his daily routine and clearly provided him with a rich social life. This was especially important after he retired because he lived alone, but it seemed he rarely went without company when he wanted it. I can’t help feeling that all the people who came and told me they knew him ‘from the pub’ might not have been so keen to volunteer this information had we been soberly gathered at the house. If I’m right, that means I would have been denied the solace of knowing he didn’t want for company.
Social aspect provision
These might seem like tenuous little things but they are utterly and irrevocably connected to choosing the pub as the place to say goodbye.
Just as we know those that have a regular, local pub are happier and healthier because of the social aspect it provides, I believe there is a similar benefit to making use of the pub as a place to say a final farewell or hold a memorial gathering.
I know I’m not alone in this because I see so many funeral gatherings at my local. There’s the sombre faces and dark-suited formality as they convene. Then the hurt and loss is softened, blunted and held at bay for a while by a shared drink and reminiscence, in a way that a going back to the house simply cannot do.
So, this is by way of thanks to the Ash Tree and all other pubs that understand how important it is to support their patrons through grief and sadness, as well as celebrations and joy.