My maternal grandmother, Merilai Lilburn, recently died in a nursing home in Katikati, New Zealand, of complications arising from pneumonia. She was 82 years old. At the time of her death, I and the other members of our extended family based in Australia were flying to Auckland from our homes on Australia’s east coast, trying to arrive in Katikati in time to bid her a final farewell. We didn’t make it, but this mad dash to Katikati did have the effect of drawing together a geographically atomised family for close to a week of mourning and funeral preparation.
Before she died, my grandmother had been serenaded on her deathbed by her three daughters, each of them a keen singer and ukulele player. By this stage her health was so far gone that she was practically insensate, yet this seems to have provided her with a great deal of comfort as she slowly passed. (Advice manuals for relatives of the dying usually claim that hearing is the last sense to go.) The situation also provided some rich gallows humour – as my mother began picking out the melody to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on her ukulele, my grandmother stirred and muttered ‘Oh, hell … oh, hell …’ Then, suddenly: ‘Oh! Heaven!’
The ukuleles are a recent development in my family, but it has always been a musical one. Douglas Lilburn, my grandfather’s uncle, was a composer of avant-garde classical music who went on to found Australasia’s first electronic music studio at the University of Wellington in 1966. While the rest of us are not as accomplished, we have integrated our passion for music into our personal and professional lives in some way or another.
One aunt used to teach music at a primary school, while another briefly scandalised the family by divorcing her husband and taking up with her guitar teacher. My parents are both avid singers who have joined a number of a capella choirs. One of my cousins produces electronic music and DJs, while my own musical leanings have been sublimated by writing about music and the occasional DJ gig. As the mania for the ukulele has swept my family, even my brother – who hadn’t expressed any interest in performing music since he quit the clarinet as a child – picked it up.
After my grandmother’s death, ukuleles seemed to proliferate in the house my grandfather had once shared with my grandmother. From mid-morning until late at night the house would be filled with the sound of various members of the family practising some of Merilai’s favourite tunes, which we would soon be singing at her funeral – ‘Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue’, ‘Side by Side’, ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’. When they weren’t in use, the ukuleles were lined up in a row on a couch in the living room, as though they were seated. It felt strange – almost impolite – to move them, even if we’d run out of room and visiting mourners needed a place to sit.
This was more than a way to pass the time between a death and a funeral – it was also a way of physically and metaphorically filling the house, a way of letting my grandfather know that he wasn’t alone, a way to help assuage his grief and ours. As we sat in the lounge room and sang, I was reminded of how much our family used music to communicate with one another: the way I always play new music to my parents when I visit them, the way my cousin and I DJ together every month at a restaurant-cum-bar despite its terrible sound system, the way I made my brother a mixed compilation of his favourite reggae tunes (a genre I have profoundly mixed feelings about) as a parting gift when he moved to Cairns. Like looking at a solar eclipse through a pinhole camera, music allows us to express what we can’t express in words because it would seem too mawkish or naive.
After the funeral, my mother announced that although she’d always wanted a choir at her own funeral, her plans had now changed – ‘Bugger that, I want a choir there as I die!’ I hope that doesn’t happen for a long time, but when it does, I know I’ll be there, with as many family members as I can muster, singing her out. It’s one means of repaying a debt to the woman who gave me life; a favour I can pay forward in the possibly vain hope that others will be there, ready to sing me out, when my own time comes.