A funeral is a party with no guest list, according to Maddie, who gatecrashed Laurence Olivier’s do at Westminster Abbey with mini-me as her innocent accessory. We sat next to Sebastian Flyte, Olivier’s son in Brideshead Revisited, and Maddie started a rumor that I was Larry’s lovechild.
The really cool funerals, like Alexander McQueen’s at St Paul’s Cathedral, have bouncers and fashion survivors (victim is just a silly word for anyone who can walk in 7-inch stilettos) who battle to upstage each other. The weeping women in waterproof mascara amble up the steps toward the altar — more exciting than any catwalk. To prove the point, Daphne Guinness, dressed like a crow on acid, nearly prostrated herself with assistance from her precarious platforms.
But what is the dress code for the funeral of someone you love? What will I wear to my brother’s funeral? Losing a sibling is particularly wounding. He’s the asexual boyfriend I didn’t have to break up with. I mourn the children we were and the adult he may have become. Does it matter what I wear? Yes. My brother would have wanted me to look dead glamorous.
I tried on everything in my wardrobe, but Chanel is too schoolmarm on the pull, Prada depresses me, and Victoria Beckham looks appropriate from the front, but that zip down the back is too footballer’s wife. I went shopping but nothing felt right. And I couldn’t even decide whether to wear black or white. White is the color of mourning in China, where I live, but my brother’s being buried in Scotland.
As Sylvia Plath, who died in an oven, wrote in Ariel: “I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted to lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.” It’s possibly the best suicide note ever written.
Dress dead glamorous to face your enemies, Maddie told me that as I zipped her into vulgar Versace for Grandfather Money’s funeral. Mummy’s microwaved cleavage was concealed beneath the mink she’d inherited from great-aunt Carmen, whose rubies were robbed from her finger by a gigolo who hadn’t been paid on account of Carmen dying before he had finished his shift.
Death and glamour have always been fixed in my mind, like Marilyn and Monroe. Death was sexy and exciting, more Italian than Scottish. And as we stood in the front row watching Grandfather Money descend into the earth at the Necropolis cemetery — a dead glam setting if ever there was one — my first funeral didn’t disappoint.
Maddie’s enemies, a Greek chorus of her disinherited sisters, hissed and wailed. Maddie’s grief was layered on as thick as the kohl around her greed-rimmed eyes. She had inherited her father’s fortune and she was going to spend spend spend.
When she bent over to kiss me goodnight the lacquer on her hair was stronger than sniffing glue. “We can go anywhere, do anything,” she whispered between puffs of her cigarettes (she always has at least two on the go). But we didn’t go anywhere, we went to the Ritz. In London, Paris, Madrid. While Maddie shopped I sneaked into churches and lit candles, fantasizing about dying young and size zero, being buried at the Necropolis in a glossy white coffin.
When the teacher went round the class and asked us what we wanted to be when we grow up, I didn’t want to be a movie star or a bank robber like the other kids. I wanted to have millions of men committing suicide over me. I needed death as well as glamour. One just didn’t work without the other.
My first suicide was a boy called John. He was secretly in love with me but he was not my boyfriend. John slashed his wrists and I got the credit. His bedroom carpet was ruined. I went round after school to watch his mother scrub it. John’s mother got down on her knees and tutted over his blood, while John and I ate custard creams and drank the Dracula-red tomato juice that I’d brought with me in my school bag. He and I pored over the details of his failure, deciding that it would be for the best if he jumped off a roof next time. Razors are just unreliable.
Fast forward to my diplomatic scholarship to the United States. Yes, my headmaster was surprised too when I was picked to go on this jolly; diplomatic immunity being one of the perks. One of my American boyfriends, Chuck E, blew his brains out while he was cleaning his father’s gun — possibly in preparation for his summer job of holding up liquor stores.
I got the credit for Chuck E’s suicide, which was probably a careless accident. This time there were no custard creams. As bad luck would have it, I missed the funeral because I had accidentally turned my headmaster’s wife into a paraplegic. The car crash was her fault — vodka and Valium for breakfast (and who can blame her, being married to him) — but I had to attend the inquest anyway, missing Chuck E’s beautiful corpse in his open casket lined with red velvet. He did love Dracula, though unlike me he was spared the disillusionment of growing up to have lunch with Christopher Lee, who could bore for England.
There were other boyfriends, overdoses and car crashes. But I married Mr Lash, who is frighteningly sane. He took me away from all this death, like Gary Oldman’s Dracula does with Winona Ryder in the Coppola version. Happiness has put me out of practice. My dealings with death are in the past and future. My present tense is full of laughter and love.
Maddie was in the front row in gigantic Jackie O sunglasses when we arrived to watch my brother being burned. She’d given me the wrong time, hoping I’d be late. There was space in the family crypt in the dead glamorous Necropolis. My brother could have been buried with Grandfather Money, who had also been allergic to work. Neither of them liked getting up in the morning. But Maddie wanted him down the hatch; it’s more hygienic.
An insult for every occasion. she snarled, “You look like a whore’s weekend.” She’s never really forgiven me for not dying before my 21st birthday and allowing her to cash in the insurance policy. Her hopes were raised when I got consumption. But my birthday came and went and I was still alive. And then there was the marriage I didn’t show up for, which was all arranged for my sweet sixteen. “All I wanted was for her to go in the front door and out the back. I would have paid for the divorce,” Maddie explained to Mr Lash as she put the moves on him while we scattered the ashes.
When I stood up to read the last paragraph of James Joyce’s The Dead, I saw my ex-best friend in the back row. She had hopes of marrying my brother, but he married an Italian woman with beautiful black hair who divorced him and is now weeping silently to my left. His daughter, my niece, is staring straight ahead, bewildered and brown with Fake Bake covering her tattoos.
So what did I wear to watch my brother being burned? Vintage Topshop, the faux fur jacket he bought me on my sixteenth birthday. Or did he steal it? It’s the thought that counts. Under the hookah jacket, a leather shift like the one Kate Moss wore to Alexander McQueen’s funeral. Aunt Irene the Slut’s Prussian Princess hat is on my head. Irene doesn’t need it. She was killed by a garbage truck reversing into her red Ford Mustang between Fifth and Madison after her escape to New York.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when I finished my reading. Except for the grinning vicar who has seen it all before and will do again. Three more times today at least. I walked back to Mr Lash, disturbing the silence of heaven with the click click of my Manolos and the beating of my heart.