From the 'Old Ragged Cross' to Jerusalem...


I often think I should write a book about the funerals I have attended over the years. Not in any morbid or disrespectful way but just as a record of what are always (obviously) deeply personal occasions, that is they are about people. As well as that, they provide moments in time when family, friends and - especially in rural areas - communities and 'generations' gather. There is so much history and experience among those attending. It is a gathering of unique memories of a life - memories that will never meet again in one place at one time. All because of those individual links to the person who has passed away and whose funeral we attend. We come in sadness but also to compliment and say thank you for the contribution he or she has made to life.

We also realise that many of us are witnesses to a considerable passage of history during which so much has changed. I recall how at school we studied history, and dates over 50-100 year periods were memorable for the happenings they recorded: reigns of kings and queens, battles, inventions, discoveries, sporting achievements, climactic events. Now we have experienced these in our own lifetimes. We wonder where the years have gone, and how 'today' will be seen when those who succeed us look back in another 50 years' time.

Attending a funeral, and hearing the carefully prepared eulogies that summarise a person's contribution, I am constantly amazed at their stories: humble country folk playing key roles in wartime battles; political influence on countryside ways and facilities; pride in breeding and producing quality animals on their farms; generosity and kindness to others and often to the village where they and their family lived; fortitude in coping with serious illness, especially those occasions when someone has died 'too soon'. We might wonder how it is that someone we thought we knew so well, in certain ways, we didn't know enough, and now the moment has passed. Yet their innate modesty wouldn't have let us learn a lot more anyway!

The service can take many different forms: a traditional Church of England funeral in the Parish church with sometimes large congregations overflowing into a marquee in the churchyard; a chapel service, of which I have experiences of strong singing and an air of support not often replicated elsewhere; the relative simplicity of a crematorium; outside in the open air - a particularly memorable one for me involved traveling across downland by Landrover and trailer with the family dogs running excitedly alongside, unaware of the real purpose of the occasion; a Roman Catholic or High Anglican service with the aroma of incense and a Mass.

Then the service sheet itself, thoughtfully prepared to reflect the character of the man or woman we are there to remember, and a complimentary photograph, lest we forget their appearance now we won't see them as we did before. And nowadays a popular tune often replaces classical pieces at the opening and closure of the service: Simply the Best sung by Tina Turner or the Wurzels' I've Got a Brand New Combine Harvester instead of Sheep May Safely Graze.

And then there are the hymns which mean so much to the family as they reflect on the life that has passed and perhaps continues. I mentioned a couple of favourites - Jerusalem needs hearty singing from a full church, and a particular version of The Old Ragged Cross I remember being gently played by a young teenage member of the family on a guitar as he sat on the Chancel steps. Maybe that is how it all fits together, taking us from the past and present into the future - the cycle or circle of Life - history is being made and we are all part of it. 

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