Sentences of Scripture – Introduction and Prayers – Hymn (The Lord’s my Shepherd) – Reading (John 14: 1 – 6) – Reflections on John’s Life – Prayers – Hymn (O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder) – Commendation – Committal in the Churchyard
[Donations may be made in the plate by the door of the church for the Greatwood Charity at Clench Common near Marlborough where retired racehorses are trained to work with children who have disabilities or learning difficulties.]
At the end of this month of festivity and gloomy wet weather, a funeral. John died before Christmas; he was 74. He was born in the village and schooled here. He worked horses on the farm for the local landowner until the the farming was mechanised. Then he spent 35 years working as a cleaner at a local army base; he was awarded a medal for his long service. He was not married.
John lived on the village street in a cottage he rented off the family whose fields he used to work. He was often out tending his garden, or walking between his home and the church. He kept budgerigars and gnomes in the flower bed in front of his cottage. We never said more than “hello” to one another but as far as I could tell he was a good, gentle man who had worked hard his whole life and had never had anything very easy. I didn’t know him but we shared geography. I lived in John’s village; it really was his village. It’s not mine yet, as much as I love it. John and I shared a word, a place, a group of people.
By the time I reached the churchyard the family party was assembled at the cross roads outside. They stood there in black and white, each of them looking quite separated from the other and I walked right past them without managing to catch anyone’s eye. There were puddles of silver water. It was windy and getting cold. A hearse was parked up with the boot open and four burly men stood in its wake, facing one another in pairs, their hands held over their groins. I walked right past everyone and up the path to the church and in the porch sheltering from the rain stood William the vicar in a black cape and a good looking, slightly tanned man with a moustache who wore a morning suit with a rotary club badge in his lapel and it was this man, who I presumed was the funeral director, who said “Would you mind sitting in the choir stalls?”
It was December the 29th and I had not been inside the church since the morning of December 25th, when William’s wife – wearing a circle of silver tinsel in her hair – gave a sermon about the true meaning of Christmas Day. I took my place in the choir stalls and sat down next to my neighbour. We whispered. Two perpendicular triangles swatched in purple cloth braided with gold had been placed in front of the alter. We whispered some more and waited for something to happen. I was sitting at the alter-end of the choir stalls and I thought about my wedding service, which had taken place eight years before at this alter, and the christening of my three children. These four services had given me occasion to occupy the church on my terms, and fill it with my people for my purposes. Now I was here for someone else’s sake; I was here to despatch a man, to see him off, to show him some respect.
William entered the church followed by the funeral director. Behind them followed John’s coffin which was pine-coloured and loaded with bunches of flowers in plastic sleeves. The four men carried John; the front pair walked with their inside arms interlocked. Each man wore a heavy coat in black or charcoal, a black suit, a white shirt and a black tie. They laid his coffin on the purple triangles. Four pairs of black shoes.
During the service the funeral director and the bearers waited in the bell tower. When it was time the director led them back up the aisle. The bearers took their places around John, the director stood to one side. There was a pause while William gave the Commendation. A tint of cigarettes and moth balls hung over the party. The bearer standing ready to lift the front left corner of John’s coffin had tattoos on his knuckles.
John was buried at the eastern end of the church yard. I stood at the back of the party next to my neighbour and we watched the bearers lower John into the ground. The pile of earth that had been dug out of the hole was covered over with a green plastic cover. This felt appropriate: raw brown earth would have looked cruel.
The language of the Anglican Committal Prayer is wonderfully calm and unafraid, especially heard across open ground and under a louring sky:
“The Lord is full of compassion and mercy,
slow to anger and of great goodness.
As a father is tender towards his children,
so is the Lord tender to those that fear him.
For he knows of what we are made;
he remembers that we are but dust.
Our days are like the grass;
we flourish like a flower of the field;
when the wind goes over it, it is gone
and its place will know it no more.
But the merciful goodness of the Lord endures
for ever and ever toward those that fear him
and his righteousness upon their children’s children”
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” continued William. He stood, rook-black against a sky the colour of cold water. The wind rocked the rain-soaked ash trees which line the road out to Cuttenham Farm. There was the green grass of the churchyard and the pasture on the other side of the fence, the grey collapsing sky and the dark brown of the saturated earth. The black and white and the lowered heads of the family gathered around John.
“in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who will transform our frail bodies
that they may be conformed to his glorious body,
who died, was buried, and rose again for us.
To him be glory for ever.”
Afterwards my neighbour and I walked home down the puddled village street, passed John’s empty cottage. He had lived an untravelled life, we agreed. One of his relations who also lives in the village has never been to London. “Why would I want to go there” she likes to say. John spent his life in the village and now he is here forever.