Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
England is such a wonderful place, with kind and considerate people and the loveliest landscape. I rediscovered that on our trip to England for the burial of my brother Ken last week. Ken, 64, was a resident of the country since 1983 with his wife, Jane, who hails from northern England, and children. Ken died suddenly two weeks ago while on a walk with Jane.
I thought I would take a few moments to tell you about the funeral and my experience on the death of a second and last brother in four years—Bob died in 2010 of a heart attack—and the banding together of a community to help Jane. To me, it indicates there is still so much good in people, and I guess I’m a hopeless optimist and think things like overwhelming goodness are still possible in our world.
Ken and Jane lived first in England in a village called Kingsclere, about an hour west of London, in the area where the book “Watership Down” is set and the TV show “Downton Abbey” is filmed. Then they moved to another village 70 minutes north of London called Denton. He died on a visit to Kingsclere, and Jane decided that is where he would be eulogized and buried. It is a lovely little place, with a charming English pub called The Swan and a musty 1,000-year-old Church of England church, and a high hill with long footpaths where sheep graze and horses run overlooking the village. That’s where Ken and Jane used to take seven-mile walks.
On the weekend Ken died, he and Jane had been staying with their close friends Alison and Mark Wray. The Wrays took in the rest of the immediate family, joining Jane. The rest of us, there for a few days, stayed either in rooms above The Swan or in a nearby hotel. My wife, Ann, and sister, Pam, came from the states, along with Ken’s very good friend from William & Mary, Tim Groves from Cambridge, Mass. We’d gather during the day at the Wrays’ home on a quiet street (every street in Kingsclere is quiet), up to 22 of us from around Europe and America, crammed into the dining area and spilling into the kitchen, and Alison and Mark would put out a dizzying array of food that they worked all week to prepare. “This is what friends do,” Alison said. “I wouldn’t want Jane to be anywhere else at a time like this.” Spinach-lentil-and-feta pie the first day, either meat or vegetable lasagna the second day, either asparagus or tomato-and-onion quiche the third day, and the toasts with the merlot and the Old Speckled Hen, and the fresh bread, and the pasta salad, and the conversations with people from Spain and Connecticut and Massachusetts and England … well, I wish the dinners of two hours had lasted four. And I wish we had more than one evening at The Swan, where the Bowman and the Theakston and Guinness—with no TV, no music, just conversation—flowed.
“Where ye from?” said one of the locals at the bar.
“New York,” I said. “The city.”
“This must be prettih slow,” he said.
“I love it,” I said. “Love your village.” Which made him happy.
The bar’s 11-year-old black lab, Jake, burrowed into us for some of our crisps. (Potato chips.) “Jake! No!” the guy at the bar said. Jake lay down and waited, hopefully. He got lucky only once, with one dropped crisp.
Jane’s an organizer. Last Monday, the women of the family and the village gathered at St. Mary’s Church to prepare the old place for a proper funeral. Kirsty, the partner of the Wrays’ son and a florist-in-training, brought seven buckets of fresh flowers, and the women made eight bouquets to place on the walls, four on each side, and large arrangements to greet the mourners at the entry of the church and more in and around the pulpit. The church hall was prepared for a reception afterward, with large photoboards of Ken’s life arranged by his son Adam. (One of my favorites is the King boys, with neckbeards, from 1978. Unfortunately, you can see that one here.) Everywhere I looked were neighbors from the village, scurrying about, making the church as homey as a centuries-old church could be made to look. Six, eight, 10, 12 villagers, there to help, to do anything Jane or Kirsty asked. They just came. Mark and I delivered the funeral wreath, made in the Wrays’ garage that morning by Jane for the top of the light pine casket, to the tiny funeral home.
Jane and Adam spoke at the funeral, stupendously and emotionally, never faltering. After the service, we walked eight-tenths of a mile to the cemetery, where six men in black suits lowered Ken’s casket into the ground. The funeral home wanted us to go in hearses; Jane said she wanted to walk, because she and Ken walked everywhere. So we walked. The cemetery, wind-whipped, is on a hill that overlooks a soccer field and much of the village. It’s where Jane and Ken buried their stillborn daughter, Sally, two decades ago. Ken and Jane were walking to this place, to visit Sally’s grave, when he collapsed and died, and so it was right that Ken would be buried here. The vicar said some nice things, and invited us to throw dirt onto the coffin if we wished. A few of us did. Jane threw Ken’s sweat-stained three-decade-old Yankees cap (he was a very serious Yankee fan) on top of the casket. And then we walked back to the church hall.
On the last full day of his life, Ken went to a wine-tasting and bought a case of pink champagne. So of course the 80 or so folks who crammed into the reception toasted Ken with the champagne he and Jane, both retired, would have used for their Champagne Friday tradition. As the last of three King brothers, I did the toast, clumsily. I was grateful for a squeeze on the left arm from Jane when I faltered at one point. I just wanted her, and everyone in the room, to know what a full and happy life Ken lived, and how incredibly grateful the American side of the family was for the goodness of the British side, and how Jane so generously had enriched all of our lives.
Afterward, Jane wanted to walk the Watership Down route, the seven miles she and Ken so often had walked. So a group of 18 of us went out, including Ken’s 14-month-old grandson, Thomas, alternately on my back and the backs of others, and on a glorious afternoon we trod the seven miles they so often did. We walked the walk, Ken’s walk. It’s one of the prettiest places in the world, full of high grass and acres of yellow flowers and green pastures and birds I didn’t know. On and on, and I never thought, Lord, I’m tired. When are we going to head back?
I’ll always remember the day, vividly. It’s the kind of day every person would hope for at the end of his or her life, in the kind of village where every person would hope to be remembered. A perfect day.
I just thought of one more thing: Adam, and Jane’s brother Steve made a soundtrack of 53 songs Ken loved for the reception and as a keepsake. As the mix played after the last dinner at the Wrays’ home a few hours after the funeral, I noticed one of Ken’s favorites was playing.