Farrah Kathleen

Farrah is a writer and mother to two based in London. She writes about bereavement, grief, babies, and parenting after the death of a child. This particular piece is a part of a longer piece exploring the realities of baby loss. 

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Death smells like glue. Like when you used to take deep sniffs of the pritt stick at school because you’d heard that it got you high and you wanted to try it. 

‘I don’t want it to look like a coffin,’ I said. A woman sat in front of me, my father to my right and my uncle to my left. My uncle had driven us to the funeral home in his black Jaguar – a funeral car already. 

The woman nodded. 

I continued. ‘Coffins aren’t very baby-like.’

Funeral homes lock their front doors. You can’t just walk into one like you could any old shop, even though they’re on the high street. I didn’t know this until they had to unlock it to let us in. The whole building was quiet, only two women were working there, and the other one was on a computer in the front of the shop. They were both blonde and chubby, with kind faces.

My son wasn’t even here yet. He was still at Great Ormond Street Hospital undergoing a postmortem examination. They had told me that they would take samples of various parts of him, like his brain and heart and lungs, to test for things. I didn’t know what things. They asked me what I wanted them to do with the samples once the testing was done with – whether I would want them to be disposed of or kept for scientific research. To dispose of them seemed selfish to me, a waste, and so I signed the papers to let them keep them for research. They would still be disposed of at some point – incinerated along with hundreds and thousands of other samples, probably – but they’d serve a purpose until then. 

‘Is there anything else you think you might like?’ the woman asked me. 

How could she think that there would be anything that I would like? I had never planned a funeral in my life and here I was having to do just that, and for my own child. Had I been through this before perhaps I might have an idea of what would be nice at a funeral, because at an adult’s funeral there can be nice things, but not at a baby’s. There can be favourite songs and favourite memories. There can be drinking because so-and-so wouldn’t want people to be sad, there could be dressing up, dressing down. But not with a baby. A baby’s funeral is never nice. There’s never any levity. Only sadness.

‘I don’t know,’ I replied. 

‘Flowers,’ my father said. ‘It would be nice to have flowers, wouldn’t it?’

‘We got mum’s ones next door,’ my uncle replied. They talked across me.

‘Yes, from Brown’s, I remember. We could get some that say Grandson, to have in the car.’

‘Why?’ I interjected. ‘Why would we have flowers saying grandson when he was only your grandson. It wasn’t like he was anyone else’s grandson except for yours. We can get some with his name on them.’

My father didn’t argue. 

‘There won’t be a car as you’d expect,’ the woman said to us. ‘Because he’s so small, what we would do is have a normal seven-door car, and have a shelf for the middle seats, and you would sit in the back.’

I tried to imagine what that would look like. I wondered if I could sit with him, or if I would even want to. I imagined him jostling around in his little box. The woman stood up, smoothed her black blazer out, and moved across the room to get a few brochures. People always die, I thought, it’s a profession in which you’ll never be out of work. Like a plumber, or a chef. People always shit, eat, and die. 

‘There are a lot of options for caskets, but I think what might be best for you is this wicker one. It’s very natural, and very sweet.’

‘How much does all of this cost?’ I asked. 

‘We don’t charge for the basics for under sixteens, only for the extra things on top.’

I nodded. That was nice of them. I didn’t know how much money I had or how I would pay for a whole funeral. Adverts on television often warned old people that they should start paying for it now to avoid burdening their families with the large costs, thousands and thousands of pounds. I wouldn’t have to pay, unless he was over sixteen. I’d rather have paid and him have reached sixteen. 

I took the brochure from the table and began to flick through it. It was necessary but it felt surreal. I had never thought about any kind of funeral before past fleetingly wondering whether mine would be busy or empty, would it be just family, or no family, hundreds of friends. My father had mentioned his before, what music he wanted to be played: Riders On The Storm, by The Doors. 

I hadn’t smoked for a long time but after Ezra died, the very same day, I had a cigarette, and I hadn’t stopped since. I muttered that I was going to go outside and took myself away. Away from the three urns, one blue, one green, one a pale orange, on the top of a cabinet that was probably full of other urns. They had been normal sized ones, because I supposed that baby-sized urns were too sad to put out for people to see. 

The funeral home was called Francis Chappell. When I’d heard the name I thought it was Francis Chapel, and it would be a chapel, but it was just a normal commercial space. It could have been a newsagents. 

I stood outside. It was a nice day. The sun shone. I knew what kind of casket I thought my baby ought to have. I squinted into the sun and took a deep, long draw of the cigarette, and I imagined all the smoke and tar and carcinogenic chemicals digging their fingernails into my cells, breaking the walls, changing things, killing things. I hoped a car would swerve from the road and plow straight into me, ending everything in one swift action and taking me out of the equation. But nothing did. I kept smoking, kept watching the cars trundle up the hill, and then I dropped the cigarette on the ground. For a few seconds I watched it burn a little more and wondered whether to have another cigarette. I didn’t want to go back inside. 

It was something I would have to face. They unlocked the door and let me back inside. I looked back and wondered if people in the street thought it was ironic I was smoking outside of a funeral home. Foreshadowing. If only they knew. I smiled at her as she locked the door behind me, and I went back into the room we’d all been sitting in.

‘I want the wicker one.’ I said to her as I sat down. ‘It’s the nicest.’

‘It does cost extra.’

‘I know.’

‘Okay, that’s fine.’ She wrote it down. ‘Do you think you’ll need another car?’

I didn’t have a big family. I couldn’t think of who would go into the car. I had decided to have the ceremony across the road from where we were now. It was awkward to get to.

‘We supply the one car, for you,’ she continued.

‘Yeah, I think so. I think we could have another car.’

She wrote that down, too. There was quiet for a little while. I looked around the room again, at the headstone samples in the corner, at the “calming” artwork on the wall – an orange sun setting on a still lake – and then back to the three urns on top of the cabinet. I remembered that I had brought a bag with me. They had told me to bring whatever clothes in that I wanted him to wear. 

The day that he died was the day of my friend’s wedding. We were to leave my mother’s house and get on the train to Richmond. He was going to wear a pale blue pair of linen trousers with a matching waistcoat, a small pink pocket square, a white shirt. It looked formal but was soft to the touch, perfect for a baby, perfect for a spring wedding. I thought about how their wedding had gone, how we’d missed it. In A&E instead.

‘I have his clothes here, and a blanket.’

‘Oh, that’s good.’

‘The blanket, would you wrap it around him properly? Make sure it’s warm, and comfortable?’

‘Of course I can.’

‘Put the pointy bit under his head, and wrap it up, like a burrito.’

He wouldn’t be warm, though. I knew that. Babies, I’d heard, were not embalmed, and so they had to be kept cold to avoid decomposition. He would have been dead for at least a week by the time I saw him again, and he would be cold. He would have to be cold. 


A priest came to the house. He worked for the crematorium. I understood that funerals could have religious services but I’d thought that was exclusive to churches. I was wrong. Hither Green Crematorium offered a religious service, but I didn’t know that you could have a non-religious one, too. I relied on those with more experience of funeral planning.

He sat on the couch that Ezra and I had sat on, played on. The room was quiet. 

‘I’m not religious, you know,’ I told him. 

‘That’s okay, you don’t have to be.’

‘I’m only doing this because I don’t know what else to do. My family arranged my grandma’s funeral at Hither Green, so…’

‘It’s okay.’

‘So what happens?’

‘We have a general template.’ He passed me a piece of paper. On it was a list of things, in order, that happened during the ceremony. I was looking at it but I wasn’t really seeing it, I didn’t read the words. He explained it anyway. ‘We’ll start with music, to come in to, then we’ll have a prayer, people can say things, we probably have about ten minutes of time for people to speak. You could say something. Then we have another prayer or two, and then the coffin will be lowered to music, and people will leave and gather outside.’

I listened. I had never been a fan of religion, I found that it caused more problems than it solved. At this point in time, though, religion worked well for people, either as something to take comfort in or something to blame. My lack of religion meant I had neither of those things. I had no God to blame for cruelty, and I had no “better place” and I didn’t have “God’s plan” to think of instead. 

‘What prayers?’

‘We’ll do The Lord’s Prayer, and a general prayer for funerals.’

I looked through the pamphlet for that one and read it to myself.

God our Father,

we thank you that you have made each of us

in your own image,

and given us gifts and talents with which to serve you.

We thank you for [Name],

the years we shared with him/her,

the good we saw in him/her,

the love we received from him/her.

Now give us strength and courage

to leave him/her in your care,

confident in your promise of eternal life

through Jesus Christ our Lord.


‘We’ll have to take a lot out of it.’

‘Well, yes,’ he replied. ‘Some of it isn’t appropriate.’

‘I want to take out the last, um, four lines, well, three lines not including the amen. And the first line, and obviously the “years we shared”, that’s not right. And the “serve” you, part.’

The Priest faltered a little. It was obvious that he didn’t want to say something that would upset me but there was something the he wanted to say. He put his hands together on his lap, he looked at me, he smiled, frowned.

‘It is a religious ceremony, place, you know, we can’t take out all of the religion.’

‘But I don’t want it in there.’

‘Could we keep, maybe, just “our Lord”?’

I didn’t want to, but then again I didn’t want to argue with a priest. I had already had my run of divine punishment, why tempt more?

I sighed. He knew I was irritated. ‘Fine.’

He nodded. We went through this process a few times, with poems, with prayers.

‘What about music?’ he asked.

‘What about it?’

‘Well, usually, when we have an adult, we would ask the family to choose some music that they liked in their lifetime, you know, to come in to, to play in the background a little, to leave to.’

‘He was a baby. He didn’t care about music.’

‘I know, I know,’ he smiled that pity-smile. ‘So in this case I’d ask you to think of something you might like to use.’

I fell silent at this. What kind of music was I supposed to choose? How could whatever I chose not be some random choice? He had no preference for music, he was a baby. So what would my choice be based on? Something I thought that he might like? Might grow to like? Or would it be something that just sounded nice, that was fitting “funeral music”?

‘I’ll think about it.’ 


I called the funeral home every day to ask them whether they had him yet. Every time they said they didn’t, but that they would call me when they did. It took ten days before they called me to tell me that I could go and see him. 

‘How does he look?’ I asked.


I told my uncle immediately that he must take me there. I was desperate to see him, I missed him more than I could ever put into words. Every part of my body ached to see him, but I was nervous. What if the woman on the phone had only said that to make me feel better? What if he didn’t look like my baby anymore? Would it be easier to say goodbye if he did, or if he didn’t? Would I be spoiling his memory to see him unlike himself?

I went in alone.

I hesitated coming into the room because I wasn’t sure if I was ready to see what he looked like. The wicker casket sat on top of what was probably just a normal table beneath the white cloth. It was just wicker, natural wood colour, looked like a moses basket. That’s what I wanted.

I could do nothing but lay my hand on his head, cold beneath the born in 2016 hat. I let my hand linger and tried to will my love through to him, wherever he was, let it envelop and cocoon him. He looked like he was asleep, and a part of me still hoped he’d come back to me.


‘I was there when he came into the world and I want to be there when he goes out.’ That’s what I had told the woman at the funeral home. She had not said whether I could or couldn’t.

‘They’re violent,’ the Undertaker warned me. ‘They’ll often let family members watch the cremation of an adult because they can push the casket in quite slowly, but it doesn’t work that way with a baby. As it’s smaller.’

He looked morbidly comical, with his painted white face, his top hat, cane, and pinstriped suit. He was at work, and I wondered whether he had to dress up like that all day or whether he’d just been walking at the front of a funeral procession and come straight from it to my house. I had never once thought in my life that I would have an undertaker at my door.

‘They have to push harder, because they can’t be so close. They push hard. So they’ve said they don’t think you should watch.’

I didn’t reply. He didn’t speak. The thing was that the funeral was going to be bad enough, the entire situation was bad enough, the fact that my boy’s body would be burned was bad enough, but now I knew that he would be subject to this last act of violence. Could he not have just said no? No, they won’t allow you to watch, they don’t let people watch. What would this one white lie have been in the grand scheme of his life? 

I looked at his stupid white face, and his stupid top hat.

‘What if I want to?’

After what he’d told me, I didn’t think I wanted to watch anymore. 

‘I’m not sure they’ll let you.’

‘How could they stop me?’

He sighed. ‘Think about what I said. You can get back in touch again if you’re certain you want to watch and I’ll ask them again. If you are insistent, it can probably be arranged, but I would imagine that it would be very traumatising for you.’

Traumatising for me! I almost laughed in his face. How could anything be more traumatising than what had already happened? What difference would a little extra trauma sprinkled on top be? I was already overflowing with trauma, with sadness and anger and regret, a little more would be a drop in the ocean of it all, and I didn’t care. I had decided and that was what I wanted. I could not shy away from his last moments on this earth. I had an obligation to be there to the end.

‘I will then, thank you.’

We sat in silence for a couple of seconds, I looked at the muted television. Homes Under The Hammer was on, and Lucy Alexander was looking concerned over the damp in the corner of a living room. 

‘Can you bring him into the house? Before we go to the crematorium?’

‘If there’s time, yes.’

‘Can we make time?’


‘Okay, thanks.’

‘You’re welcome. Well, I have to get back to work. It was lovely to meet you, and I’ll wait to hear from you.’


‘No need to get up, I can let myself out.’

For one of the first times in my life I let him let himself out. 


I thought about it a lot, why death smelled like glue. I thought about whether it was true or not. I wondered whether it would be an interesting thing to tell people, or to ask people if it was something they had noticed, too. But then, I realised, perhaps it really was glue I was smelling, holding him together after what they’d done to examine him. I wished I hadn’t noticed the smell.