I suppose one thing I regularly get is, ‘Jim, could you just give us a hand here.’
To be fair it’s normally somebody wanting a hand sorting sheep, or somebody to hold a tup while they trim its feet. But occasionally it can be an editor, desperate to get something to fill a gap in their publication.
I’ve helped by pouring drinks at book launches and tactfully trying to sort out two streams of traffic moving in opposite directions down a single track road.
And occasionally it’s because a neighbouring parish has a funeral and they need a spare churchwarden.
I’ve done my fair share of funerals, both as mourner and as ‘staff’. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to be a bearer, (which I suppose is just another example of ‘Jim, could you just give us a hand here.’)
But helping at a funeral of somebody you never met is ‘interesting.’ You get the church ready, as a rule of thumb open up an hour before the funeral, longer if you expect there to be a lot of family from away. The undertaker will have somebody drop in with the orders of service, ideally before people start arriving.
Then people start drifting in. Often the first people are members of the regular congregation who knew the deceased, if only in passing. They will come in and sit quietly, lost in their own thoughts. Then you might get a friend of the deceased turn up, somebody who’s travelled a long way and was determined not to be late. You greet them, give them the order of service and tactfully ensure they know where the toilets are.
At some point the Minister will make an appearance. Checking the microphones, checking that everything is at hand for when it’s needed. Making sure that the churchwardens know he’s off to the crematorium with the family afterwards so don’t let anybody block his car in.
Probably twenty minutes before the official start you get two groups forming outside. The first is ‘family and bearers.’ They’ll come in carrying the coffin or following it. The other group are those who you might call ‘lightly churched’. They put off entering the building until they reach a critical mass and then sweep in as a group, relying on mutual support and numbers to help them face the unknown terrors that await.
And finally the cortege, led by the hearse. With practiced professionalism the undertakers make sure everything is ready. Does this church have its own trestles for the coffin to rest on or does it need the set carried in the hearse?
And then it starts. Different churches do it differently, this one they toll the bell from when the coffin slides out of the hearse to the moment it enters the nave. The bearers, unsteady, grim faced and concentrating, gently shepherded by the undertaker, make their way into the church. Then the family in order, nervous and fighting tears.
It’s at this point that you realise that there is no gap between ‘mourners’ and ‘staff’. I’ve followed coffins as well as carried them, and I’ve known the grief that I can see as people walk past me.
And then we’re into the service. It’s at this point that the finality asserts itself. Perhaps it’s the competent and sensible young woman who has organised everything for the family just about holds it together as she does a reading. Perhaps it’s an old friend of the deceased who reads a favourite scripture or poem, perhaps it’s younger family members who struggle through their piece in tears.
Beware of sentimentality. There are places for sentimental verses, but when read in the presence of a coffin they often just seem empty. It’s like watching a small dog yapping in the presence of a wolf. People are staring into the unblinking eyes of their own mortality; “Goodbye Granddad” said through tears can say everything the family needs.
The minister then gives us the eulogy. It’s strange to meet somebody for the first time after they’ve died; but already I’ve a picture of him. Not of the man in his nineties but of the real person.
“Courted her for six years before marrying at the age of ….” Grief, they’d be living together after the first few months now.
“Married for seventy years…” And you remember the widow, straight-backed, a daughter-in-law holding her hand, staring ahead as she entered the church. Seventy years. Not for that generation the emotional self-mutilation of divorce and serial polygamy. She stares back unblinking into a world long gone.
Then the Minister moves into the committal. He’s a man I know and think well of, he stands there trying to offer comfort, to give people something to take away with them. No mouthing of platitudes, this isn’t the place for them; he is sharing certainties. Then the twenty-third psalm, poetry three thousand years old.
And the hymns, old favourites, ‘Abide with me’, ‘The Day thou gavest Lord is ended’, ‘All things bright and beautiful.’ It’s at this point you see the cracks at many funerals. A good half, perhaps more, of the mourners stand silent. I suspect it isn’t that they just don’t know the words; it’s that as a society many of us have lost the habit of singing at all, certainly as a group. Yet there is an immense comfort to be had in singing old familiar words together, a sense of being part of a community that has been facing the same griefs that you feel now for so many thousands of years.
And then it’s over. Quietly move to get the doors opened, then the coffin is carried out and the family follow.
Head bowed in respect as the coffin goes out through the open doors. He’s worthy of respect, he’s left a nice family, decent enough folk who loved him, what more can a man ask for? Red eyed and voiceless the family make their way out into the gloom of a November afternoon.
For them, it’s the crem, then the funeral tea where the healing begins. There should be stories, the catching up, the memories and the setting of the world to rights. For us it’s a case of tidying up, putting everything away and wandering back into our own lives.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see—
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.