I SIGNED and addressed forty letters, most of them with a personalised handwritten note at the bottom, inviting families who have lost someone over the past year to our All Souls’ Day requiem. Some were for memorial services, commemorating those who died during lockdown and whose funerals were reduced in numbers, if not in grief or intensity.
I should probably have got our wonderful administrator, Lynne, to do the letters (they’d have looked much more professional, for one thing), but I feel it’s a way of touching base with families I’ve been involved with, sometimes over months, often at a deep level of vulnerability. I think of them as I write, picturing them in my mind, and offering them up.
Over the years, I have taken upwards of 2000 funerals: a sobering thought. For most of these, I have never met the person being commemorated; so it has been an exercise in rapidly envisaging and articulating a life. A big sea-change is that — whereas, previously, I had been taught to meet and chat with the family and then put their emotions of loss, remembrance, and gratitude into my own words — most families now write their own tributes. And, since for the past year we haven’t actually been able to meet in person, tributes now tend to be pre-written.
It certainly makes it simpler for me (and more personal and engaging, I suspect, for the bereaved), but I can’t help feeling that I’m rather short-changing them. It was something I was quite good at, and found satisfying. Oh well, things move on. . .
I OCCASIONALLY wonder if in the hereafter I will meet all those people whose funerals I’ve taken, to be greeted with, “Thank you, that was me,” or “Blimey, what a load of twaddle!” But, on this side of the grave, funerals can still be eye-opening.
I remember one, for a greatly loved member of my congregation, at which an unknown daughter turned up, wanting to know what had happened to the Crown Derby that she felt should have been hers. And one of the most disconcerting funerals that I ever took was when a hugely disgruntled woman berated me afterwards, shouting “I was his partner for over 20 years and I wasn’t even mentioned!”
I said that I could only go on what I’d been told, and decorously left them all to it to sort it out among themselves.
I HAVE written frequently about “The Bevy”, the community pub with which I was deeply involved in my previous parish of Moulsecoomb, in Brighton. I have also written (at length) about my favourite city, Venice, and its Biennali. I never thought, though, that I’d write about them together in the same piece.
This year in Venice it’s the Architectural Biennale (which alternates with the Art). I was hugely excited to see that, in the British Pavilion, the British Council has an installation — The Garden of Privatised Delights, curated by Madeleine Kessler and Manijeh Verghese of Unscene Architecture — celebrating the concept of the local pub. In it, under the banner headline “Could the pub become a centre for civic action?”, they have created a stylised version of The Bevy with bar, carpet, décor, and even karaoke machine.
Poignantly, on the wall is a portrait of my friend Kevin, proudly wearing his Union Jack blazer. Kevin was the face of the Bevy, a staunch member of the congregation, and a real character. I took his funeral some three years ago — I wrote about that, too. I am gutted that I can’t go to the Biennale in person (no time, and still too many Covid-related hurdles); so am reconciled to this odd juxtaposition, with an agreeable if somewhat unsettling sense of my little worlds colliding.
Sense of belonging
YOU can’t really get further from the cosmopolitan canals of Venice than the twisting East Sussex country lanes surrounding Uckfield. Over my ministry, I had become more and more urban and inner-city until, with a final leap, I made it to the countryside.
I can date the realisation that I was now truly a rural parson quite precisely, to Saturday 13 March this year, when I got stuck in the mud on a farm track. It was the day before Mothering Sunday: our churches still being closed because of Covid, a stalwart group managed to deliver some 125 Mothering Sunday posies to our community, my last delivery being to an outlying farmhouse.
As I was driving back, a van hurtled past: I pulled into a field, without realising the depth of the mud, and promptly got stuck. Having tried various manoeuvres, I gave up and stood, surveying the scene, wondering what to do.
A Land Rover pulled up; I began introducing myself, but the driver said, “I know who you are, Fr John. We can pull you out.” A rope was produced, my car was attached, and soon it was free. I went on my way rejoicing, reflecting on how lovely it is to be part of a real community.
The great company of the dead, the joy and eccentricity of the living, all linked in an interwoven tapestry of parish life. It’s fun being a Vicar!
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.