Love and Loss


angelOver two days this week I have been involved in four funerals. When I say “involved” I mean that I have provided the music for one, delivered the eulogy and address at one, supported a friend who was delivering his first eulogy at another, and at one to mourn the passing and celebrate the life of a friend. It might seem that to go to four funerals in two days is a bit much, but to be honest, I found those two days a journey of personal and spiritual growth, and I have learned more about myself and the relationships I have with people around me after reflecting on the lives of the four people I said farewell to.

For the first funeral (Wednesday), my role was to play the music during the funeral of Daniel*. He was an elderly gentleman whose family had chosen to have a church service and burial, and his funeral was attended by lots of family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. He was a big Blue (a big Manchester City fan in case you didn’t know) and he was brought into church to the beautiful singing of Mel Torme and “Blue Moon”. In the congregation was Fred Eyre who used to play for City and who now provides match commentary on Radio Manchester. The tributes were read by Daniel’s friend, and by an 11 year old little girl, who lived next door to him. It was very moving to hear an 11 year old child speak about the gentle giant that Daniel was, and she brought me to tears with her emotional speech.

On Thursday morning I attended three services at the crematorium, one in each of the three chapels there. I had the privilege of giving my very first funeral address. It was for William*, who had died in October and whose family were unable to organise the funeral for him. I did manage to speak to a couple of people who knew William and I learned a little of his life and the manner of his death, and I drew on that information and the gospel message to be able to write an address for him. I didn’t expect many family members to be present, but as it turned out there were about 50 people there to hear the funeral service and to mourn William’s passing.

Straight after William’s funeral was the service for George*. My role was two-fold, first to be a support for my friend Nick, who was also delivering his first funeral address, and also to be a mourner for George who had only two distant family members there for him.

After George’s service was the funeral of one of my own friends, Bryce. He was a cornet player and involved in many brass bands over the years so the chapel was full to the brim, with standing room only at the back and down the sides. I estimated over 200 people were there for him today, and the tributes were rich and emotional, moving and joyful. The band played “Nimrod” as a piece of reflection music, which again was very moving, and there were lots of tears shed at the very end when Bryce’s own cornet playing was relayed to the gathering in a recording he made about 18 months ago of “Ave Maria”.

So, four very different funerals. Four very different people, and four different views of death and saying goodbye to them. When I look at them as a group of four, I see the differences that life throws up to us. One man drew a couple of hundred mourners, another drew just two; one man’s family had split down the middle and didn’t really know about each other – not because of any argument but by a simple drifting apart and not speaking to each other; one man had no family to even fall out with and was truly alone in the world.

The differences go on and on, but it’s the similarities that strike me.

All four men at some point in their lives had met with hardship and struggle. With health, with learning difficulties, with failed marriages, with family splits. They had all loved and lost in one form or another, and yet they still managed to survive into later years, to about 70-80 years old each.

Another similarity is that they were all loved. Love is love, and to me it doesn’t matter whether there are just a couple of family members and “staff” from the local church to mourn you, or whether there are 200 people and a big brass band gathered to send you off, the fact is that these men were all loved and were mourned.

But it’s not just love that we understand in human terms that these men experienced, they are loved by God our father who loves us all, no matter how lost or broken we may feel, or how messy and chaotic our lives may be, or how we view ourselves as failures and so on. The love that sustained these four men sustains us all too, and we all have the promise of resurrection in glory at the end of days.

Death is a great leveller, and I realised on Thursday that no matter what our life’s achievements are or what may try to accumulate in material wealth, we all end our days on earth here the same way.

 

*Names have been changed to preserve the privacy of the individuals concerned.

Bikers, Bells and Band


It has been one of “those” days today. You know the ones, where randomness happens throughout the day and you just have to shake your head and say, “well, that was a bit good!”

Well my day has been a bit like that.

First of all I went to Stay and Play this morning and saw absolute genius in action. One of our mums is blind, and she has managed her baby very well with the help of either her own mum or a carer who was there to help guide her around and to make sure that the baby was always looked after. The baby has now grown up a little bit and is toddling around quite happily on her own two feet, but today, the mum came without the aid of either her mum or her carer, instead relying on the help of one of the other mums (a friend of hers anyway) to get her into the church hall and to get her seated and so on. The genius bit was this:

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A set of jingle bells round the little girl’s ankle so that her mum could hear where she was in the hall and could track her movements easily. We were all astounded at how such a simple thing could mean such a lot – that not only could the mum enjoy some independence, but that the baby could also enjoy running around without getting too far away from mum. Of course there are always lots of people watching out and interacting with the mums and tots in the group so there would never be any real danger, but how’s that for a stroke of genius to help them both enjoy a bit of living!

Nature was also having a bit of genius this morning too. How’s about these couple of beauties?

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Still reeling from the gorgeous skies and cold, crisp air, came a demonstration of something deeply moving. At about 12 o’clock, there was an almighty roar of engines going past the church hall as a big group of bikers made their way noisily up the main road. About 15 minutes or so later, they all came back again, this time doubled in number, going half the speed and leading out a hearse and a funeral cortege down towards the crematorium. The flowers on top of the coffin were in the shape of a motorbike, and the flowers down the side of the hearse spelled out BROTHER in black flowers. What a sight, and what a gesture to witness. Here is a video of the tail end of the procession so you can see for yourself.

Then this evening, I had the utmost pleasure and privilege to sit and listen to the Pemberton Old Band as they were put through their paces at a rehearsal for an upcoming contest. I have been going there for the last couple of months with Ethan, who is playing bass trombone for them, and I have heard the piece they are playing take shape and get generally better and better each week. The band has a great sound and tonight they were pushed to really play proper pianissimo and fortissimo, which was fantastic to hear. There are another couple of rehearsals to go before the contest at the end of the month, and it promises to be a great performance. Looking forward to it.

So there you have it, a couple of things that have made up my day today. Random? Or simply a reflection of the eclectic life I have?!

Either way, today has been a good one.

 

 

The Great Escape


I went to the funeral of an old friend today. I have known him since I was about 7 years old, so that’s 35 years I’ve known this gentleman.

His name is Neville but I knew him as Nev.

He died suddenly about 4 weeks ago and there has been a delay with the coroner, which is why his funeral was only today. He had health problems and though he wasn’t managing them very well, there was no indication that he would just die like that.

He lost his wife about 3 years ago and I think it is fair to say that when she died, he became rudderless without her guiding hand and he lost his way a little. He carried on with the things she’d told him to do – he continued coming to church and the various clubs they’d been members of together – but gradually he got muddled and would turn up at church when there was nothing on, or he would forget basic things like what day of the week it was. He would drive past church “just in case” and he would spend hours sitting outside waiting for someone to come and open up. It was such a shame to see him like that but he never ever lost his sparkle or the twinkle in his eyes, and he never seemed to be sad or unhappy.

As I said, I have known Nev since I was about 7 years old when I first joined the Church Lads and Church Girls Brigade. He was an officer in the Brigade and he played the bugle – which was what I played too. I was a cornet player already but I learned how to play the bugle alongside Nev. Later on when I returned to the Brigade as an officer myself, I worked alongside him in the band and he was great when it came to playing darts, snooker and football with the lads. He didn’t have children of his own, sadly, but he managed to indulge his fatherly tendencies with the children at Brigade through games like that.

Nev’s other strength at the Brigade was that he was a very accomplished drum major. He was fantastic with the mace and he loved to teach the kids who showed an aptitude for it. I remember hours and hours marching up and down the lawn at church with Nev shouting instructions of “throw it, throw it!!” and “round the back, NOWWW!”. He taught generations of kids how not to knock their front teeth out or brain themselves with that mace. We had several sized ones to train with – ones with lighter heads and others with shorter stems for kids of all heights to use.

We heard today that Nev met his wife whilst he was on parade as a drum major. He was a handsome man, but in his uniform you can see exactly why she would have fallen for him!

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The funeral service today was lovely but it was a bit strange to see our church full and not see Nev in his usual seat…Weird. He was ALWAYS at church and the past couple of weeks have been really strange, but today was something else. To know that he was there but not there took a bit of a leap to accept.

We sang the Brigade hymn – Fight the good fight – which, when you read the words you can see that that’s how Nev lived his life. I’ve put the words below. Let me know what you think.

We listened to a couple of tracks off a CD from Blackley Band as Nev was arriving and as he left at the end of the service – a CD that was recorded in 2001 and yours truly was playing on it. We heard “Sweet Gingerbread Man” at the start of the service, and we were supposed to hear “the RAF March Past” at the end, but as the pall-bearers lifted the coffin to turn it round to take him out, the track stopped midway through. The iPad skipped to the next track which was an absolutely brilliant masterstroke because it was “The Great Escape”.

How apt!! I thought if Nev could’ve chosen his exit music himself he might have chosen just that track. He has been longing to be out of here and to be with his wife since the day she died and it was a fitting end to his presence here on earth.

God bless you Nev. You fought your good fight and your straight race has now been run. See you on the other side fella.

 

Fight The Good Fight Hymn

Fight the good fight with all thy might;
Christ is thy Strength, and Christ thy Right;
Lay hold on life, and it shall be
Thy joy and crown eternally.

Run the straight race through God’s good grace,
Lift up thine eyes, and seek His face;
Life with its way before us lies,
Christ is the Path, and Christ the Prize.

Cast care aside, upon thy Guide,
Lean, and His mercy will provide;
Lean, and the trusting soul shall prove
Christ is its Life, and Christ its Love.

Faint not nor fear, His arms are near,
He changeth not, and thou art dear.
Only believe, and thou shalt see
That Christ is all in all to thee.

A Day Of Opposites


It has been a day of opposites today, where sorrow and comedy have lived side by side.

The sorrow came in the shape of two funerals I attended today. The first was for a 37 year old woman who died suddenly in hospital a couple of weeks ago. Her family were devastated – how on earth can a young mother of four children be suddenly be taken away with no warning and no reason?- and though I didn’t personally know her, it was impossible not to be hit by the tidal wave of their distress during the service. I was present during the service to help with the music and to some photos the family had chosen on a slide show on the TV screen to tell the story of her life, which is something I am proud to have been able to do for them.

The second funeral was for a 77 year old gentle man who was a friend to me and a member of our congregation. You’ll notice I split that word to describe him, but he truly was a very gentle and humble man. He had lots of health problems which mainly stemmed from a brain tumour he had at the age of 13, and he had been given a life expectancy of no more than 2 years after the surgery to remove it.

The service for him was very different to the one earlier. Both were Christian services held in church and both were families who had the Christian faith running through the family, yet they were as opposite to each other as could be. The music – one was mostly pop songs that were played on an iPad; the other was all hymns which were played on the church organ. The circumstances – one was a young woman who shouldn’t be dead; the other was an elderly gentleman who arguably shouldn’t have still been alive. The families – one was totally devastated and lost; the other peacefully accepting.

There were similarities too – the certain faith that their loved ones are not lost to us, just lost from this life and are now with God; the trust that their grief will eventually be assuaged, and they will celebrate having known and loved both of these people.

Of course, as in life, death isn’t perfect either and there was comedy (if not farce) in the day too.

The first funeral was to be held at 12 o’clock, and the second at 2.15pm. That would have been ample time to make sure the service for the first was held with dignity, the vicar could travel the mile and a half to the crematorium to conduct the short service there before heading back to church, and the mourners would have time to move on to the wake without being rushed before the next one arrived.

Only the limousine to take the family to the crematorium for the first funeral broke down and couldn’t be started. The funeral directors sent for another limo, which was fine because at least the funeral could continue and the service at the crematorium would have been on time, but our church is on a main road where there is no daytime parking, and the limo was blocking the space for the next hearse and limo to arrive.

This is a picture of the vicar, who had arrived back from the first one, “helping” the funeral directors trying to get it going.

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They got a bit frantic when they realised that the next one was due in about 20 minutes and so ended up man-handling the car further up the road to make way for it, and then rang for the breakdown service.

We didn’t think any more of it until after the second service, when it was getting a bit dark outside and everyone left the church to go to the crematorium, to be faced with a massive bright orange RAC truck – complete with lights flashing – loading up the first limo directly in front of the second hearse.

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It was a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place on a hidden camera prank show on TV!

My overwhelming feeling about today is one of thankfulness. I’m thankful that I had the privilege of being able to help a family I didn’t know celebrate the life of Janine, and I’m also thankful that I had the chance to hear Brian’s story and share the sorrow felt by his brother Frank and the rest of his family. I’m thankful that I had the privilege to know Brian personally too; he had the twinkliest blue eyes and he was always cheerful, even on the days when his health problems were getting him down.

I’m thankful too for my own family and for my place in it. I’m thankful for my faith in God, and most of all I’m thankful that life – and death – is a splendid mix of sorrow and comedy.

I Will Wait


I had to share this with you today.

It was played at the funeral of a 21 year old young lady that was held at my church today. I was there because we were expecting a large group of mourners and I wanted to help where I could, but when the funeral director brought in a picture of her, I realised that I knew her from when she was a young child so I was doubly glad that I was there.

The young lady had been suffering from bone cancer on and off since the age of 15, and typically, she never put her own health problems before the concerns of others. She will be massively missed by her family and friends, and I have a feeling that she chose the music for her funeral herself because the choices were so thoughtful and poignant. They were a message from her to those people who mourn her as you will see from this track I’m sharing with you now, which was played as the coffin was taken out of church at the end of the service. The lyrics are bob on, and the whole sentiment of the song is brilliant and a perfect message from a young person to her Mum.

I had heard of, but never listened to, Mumford & Sons before today but this has made me go and try a bit more of their music. As well as being entirely apt for the funeral this afternoon I feel it is appropriate for so many other relationship situations.

The opening line is absolutely stunning.

 

Funniest Funeral Ever


I know funerals are solemn occasions and they are meant to have gravitas and dignity but I’ve just got to share with you what happened today at my Aunty Mo’s funeral.

Aunty Mo was an avid Manchester United supporter but despite that she was the kindest and most generous person you could ever meet. She would literally give you her last penny and then ask you how else she could help you.  She was always first with the arms out to hug you if things were going wrong and she was just so loving and gentle. But she found life extremely difficult herself and so used alcohol as her way of getting through, which is how she died.

I don’t want this post to be sad and weighty but you have to understand my Aunty Mo to understand how the funeral was so funny today. People were crying before we even left the house today, which is unusual because it’s usually only at the church that emotions run. But not with Aunty Mo.

The first hymn was Abide With Me, which did for me because that is my all time favourite hymn for its comfort and support. Then came Aunty Pat who tried to read the psalm but couldn’t read past the first line so I stepped up to read it for her.  Then the requiem mass with communion and the incense – which didn’t burn properly – and the eulogy. How my cousin Hannah managed to say those words about her Mum I’ll never know, but the emotion was high to say the least.

As we left church during the last hymn everyone was pretty upset and the bell began to toll which lent even more sadness and grief to the proceedings. Mo was loaded into the back of the hearse and the flowers were placed round her coffin and everyone went back to their cars for the procession to the cemetery. And we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

But the hearse had broken down and the engine wouldn’t start. It was like a scene from a comedy film. Bonnet up, boot open, 2 guests with heads under bonnet, one guest lying on the floor underneath it. A gypsy van stopped to help and offered us his jump leads to start it but that failed. So they sent back to the undertakers to bring a spare hearse, which arrived just as the engine went bang with a huge plume of brown smoke and leapt into life.

There was a mad scramble back to the cars and we set off to the crematorium half an hour late. So imagine the scene – a dash down the road by the original hearse, followed by a load of cars, followed by an EMPTY hearse just in case it stopped again.

We were late to the crematorium then and so we nearly missed our slot. We were short on time to say our final goodbyes, but that was probably a good thing.

It’s a good job our family has got such a sense of humour because we could really have come undone at that point. But we didn’t. Probably because we knew it was Mo just having her little way and saying “I’m not ready to go anywhere yet”.

It was just the right thing to have happened because of the overwhelming emotion we were all experiencing. And it was just like Mo to have the last word.