On Friday this week, the Feast of All Souls, my family gathers at our ancestral home, Towneley Hall, to pray for all the Towneley dead. Amongst the dead for whom we pray is, naturally, Uncle Frank of How The Hangman Lost His Heart. Indeed, we hear Mass in the very chapel in which his poor old bonce resided until the central heating proved a bit of a problem and he had to resort to the hatbox. It is an odd occasion, this Mass for All Souls. So many dead Towneleys. Glad to say so many living Towneleys, too.
The priest officiates at the Towneley altar, an early sixteenth century Flemish affair installed by my ancestor Charles Towneley, who died in 1805. To say it was intricately carved would be a severe understatement. This altar is the busiest altar you’ve ever seen, with lively scenes from Christ’s passion from which no detail is spared. What patience wood carvers had in those days! We kneel in front of it on creaking floorboards, all those that can gather, and confront the fact that one day our descendants, God willing, will be praying for us in similarly uncomfortable postures. Comforting, though, to think that even if they’ve forgotten who we actually were, we’ll be remembered in the general job lot of dead Towneleys the priest is obliged to mention – “and all those others”. Better than nothing.
I remember particularly my mother, who died in February 2001 aged 65. How the world has changed since then. She wouldn’t recognise most of our conversation now: 9/11, Al-Qaeda, iPods, blogging, the universal mobile. Mind you, she never quite got the hang even of payphones so perhaps it’s as well she was spared the clamshell, the ringtone and texting. But I remember her standing for the photograph the All Souls before she died, knowing quite well that the next time we gathered in the chapel she would be included not in the photograph but in the RIP list.
After Mass, we all have breakfast together. How the mighty are fallen! No longer do we breakfast in the fine family dining room. Nope. We are relegated to the servants’ hall, and a very merry relegation it is too. We have a full English fry-up, Oxford marmalade for the toast and more family gossip than you could fit into a Jane Austen novel. Woe betide any of the sorority (we are 6 sisters and a brother) who isn’t there! Woe betide cousins who don’t turn up. If you’re not present, you may well be spoken of in terms to make you blush. With the priest on tap, we can always nip to confession afterwards if we feel we overstepped the mark and return home with perfectly clear consciences.
So, I gather myself together. Prayers for the dead and a hearty breakfast for the living – we Towneleys are nothing if not inclusive. Any spectre welcome at this feast.