Like many over this weekend, I have spent time remembering those who have given their lives for others and have taken part in 4 varied acts of remembrance. On Saturday, it was with 45 000 football fans at Anfield where an immaculate quiet gently intervened in the usually noisy atmosphere. On Sunday morning, it was with family watching the events at the Cenotaph and then in the afternoon joining local veterans, residents and Cllrs for the annual service and remembrance in Camberley with hundreds of local people. Then this morning at 11am, a time of silence with colleagues at my workplace who gathered and stood quietly around a flagpole.
And yet the most poignant story which really made me think concerned the story of Mr Harold Jellicoe Percival. He was a war veteran aged 99 who died recently in a Lancashire nursing home.
Mr Percival was unmarried and never had children. He spent his last years in a nursing home and according to reports without any friends or family visiting. The funeral director, apparently concerned that his funeral would be poorly attended decided to put an advert in a local paper. Word spread by social media and his funeral today at 11am saw hundreds of people coming along. You can read about this here.
So why is this such a sad story? After all, many strangers came along to pay their respects and hopefully this gave comfort to his remaining family. In fact, so many of them came wanting to give him a good send-off that they stood outside in the rain being unable to get in to the ceremony.
And yet the real sadness here is that Mr Percival like many other war veterans seemingly ended his life alone and with few people caring about his existence. As one colleague caustically said today, “where was those people when he was alive and when he needed them the most?”
There are many thousands of people in this country just like Mr Percival. People who fought for their country perhaps sacrificing a future family or time with friends in doing so. It is no surprise that many of these suffer afterwards with broken relationships or try to block out memories with drink or have poor mental health. Sadly, if you talk to those sleeping rough on the streets, you will realise that many of them will come from an ex-services background but have found it impossible to adapt to civvy street.
Many will go on to live a long life but like many older people will spend their final years experiencing intense isolation. No-one comes to visit, no-one phones up and the only letters they receive are bills. There will be hundreds of people in Surrey Heath living or existing in this way but it would seem to them that no-one notices and no-one cares. Their only human contact for the week may be the person serving them at the post office or supermarket checkout.
When they are medically unable to look after themselves, many will then be put in a home. Their final days spent with even their most personal needs being done by complete strangers who are being paid to do so.
Is it really a good send-off when the person is not alive to appreciate it? Or instead, should we as a society treat older people and especially our veterans with time and dignity so that their last years can be fondly remembered and even celebrated by them?
It is important that we never forget those who died whilst serving the country and to stand in silent recognition for a few minutes a year. But the real remembrance is surely in the story of Mr Percival; to remember the living, those who survived or got left behind when life moved on. This is a huge challenge to all of us but we should never forget.