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1 February 2017

I was going to be the Only Gentile at the Funeral – so I started rending my best skirt

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that we were the only souls in attendance at Brighton’s most depressing crematorium.

By Julie Burchill

Poor, modest, teetotal, self-sacrificing: Y—— was the exact opposite of me. But somehow we just clicked and became best friends.

Just before Y——’s mother died, she told Y—— that they were Jewish. (Deathbed revelations of this excellent news are not uncommon and probably have their unutterably sad roots in anti-Semitism.)

I had been in the grip of a quite violent philo-Semitism since I found out about the Shoah as an adolescent and had already enjoyed/survived a volatile marriage to a Jewish man. The idea of having a Jewish best friend struck me as absolutely smashing. And look! Unlike with poor Cosmo, whom I had fetishised, fucked and finished with, I hadn’t even known Y—— was Jewish, so I got extra points.

When she asked me to go to her mum’s funeral, I was giddy with glee. I looked up on the internet how to comport myself at a Hebraic internment. I noted that I should be very clean and not wear cosmetics, and that I should rend my garments. I took out a lovely, red Hobbs skirt that I’d been saving for a special occasion and tore it right up the back; as I tried it on and peered over my shoulder at the mirror, I noticed how great my legs looked, then sternly pushed such vanity away. This was going to be a solemn occasion!

But as I’d never knowingly left the house without lipstick and scent since the age of 12, I thought it would be OK to wear the bracelet that my husband had given me for my 40th birthday. It had 40 little diamonds, which I’d customised by attaching a plastic Star of David.

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I’d pictured myself as the Only Gentile at the Funeral, surrounded by a klezmer band, plates of tempting Jewish finger food and handsome men and wailing women – all of whom, with any luck, would be shorter and plainer than me (this No Vanity Project was not going at all well, I reflected in the cab to Y——’s). Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that we were the only souls in attendance at Brighton’s most depressing crematorium.

“You’re here for your friend,” I reminded myself as I sulked through the meagre service. Y——’s mum, it transpired, had been a militant atheist. I played idly with my bracelet as Y—— nipped behind the curtains to say her final farewell to her mum. As I fiddled with it, the gormless dawn of yet another crazy plan rose in my eyes. “Can I say goodbye to your mum, too?” I asked Y—— when she emerged. Touched, she assented.

We walked in silent companionship up the hill, away from the crematorium. But I couldn’t keep a lid on how I’d put my diamond bracelet in Y——’s mum’s coffin when I’d bid her l’hitraot, so that she might meet her Maker as a Jew. For once, my blabbermouthery averted catastrophe.

“You stupid bitch!” cried my mild-mannered mate. “You can’t put diamonds in a coffin and cremate it. YOU’LL BLOW THE ROOF OFF!” Back we went, pelting down the hill, to stop the climax of our personal Ealing comedy from happening just in time. 

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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West