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Grave error at funeral down under

18 October 2013


AN ENGLISH priest, ministering in Australia, recently had to wait nearly six hours to bury one of his parishioners.

The Priest-in-Charge of St John the Evangelist's, Raymond Terrace, in the diocese of Newcastle, in New South Wales, the Revd Christopher Yates, who is originally from Manchester, was about to begin a funeral when the undertaker informed him that the grave had not yet been dug.

"I honestly did not know what to say or do," Mr Yates said. "I was racking my brain for anything I'd learned during formation, or for any stories I'd heard from other priests, but there was no reference point at all."

Mr Yates explained to the family that the grave had not yet been dug, but that the undertakers were working hard to fix the situation. He invited the eulogists to take as much time as they wished.

Halfway through the funeral, which began at 11 a.m., Mr Yates received a message saying that the grave would be dug in time for a 2 p.m. burial at the council cemetery, half a mile away from the church. At the end of the service, the congregation agreed to meet back in the church at 1.30 p.m., and until then the family would keep vigil around the coffin.

In the government area of Port Stephens, in which Mr Yates's parish is located, there is only one licensed gravedigger, and on the day of the funeral he was a 45-minute drive away. By 2.30 p.m. he had still not arrived, and unfortunately for him, "the Mayor of Port Stephens was at the funeral, and furiously embarrassed," Mr Yates said.

"However, Australians are a resourceful lot. The news that there might not be a burial at all that day was greeted with: 'That's it, I'm gettin' me shovel,' and the dead man's sons headed to the graveyard."

By 3 p.m., Mr Yates had been told that the grave would be ready in an hour. He spent the afternoon with the family, looking up their names in the registers. "The atmosphere in the church around the coffin was jovial," he said. "It was a little absurd to be laughing and talking in the presence of their departed loved one, but, strangely, it was a good way to grieve."

The ceremonies at the grave-side finally concluded at 4.30 p.m., and the family asked Mr Yates to join them for a drink. "I don't usually go to wakes", he said, "but on this occasion I made an exception."

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