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Essence of James

21 April 2023

Lorna Atwell found a special way of commemorating her husband, James

The Very Revd James Atwell

The Very Revd James Atwell

SOME years before he died, I had asked James to let me know what arrangements he would like for his funeral. One thing that we did not discuss, however (and which dawned on me only shortly before he died), was the idea of enclosing a small “treasure chest” inside the wicker casket. In some ways, it brought comfort, as it made me think about what was important to James.

Over the years, we had taken numerous groups to visit Egypt, and this experience undoubtedly influenced me: I rather like the idea of having a few ushabti to help out in the next life! Archaeological finds are very exciting, and I think I wanted to leave a trace of what had made the character of the person whose bones might one day be excavated. It is also probably therapeutic to have something to concentrate on when you get the devastating news that somebody you love has only two or three weeks of life left. So, I am writing this down, in case anybody else would like to do something similar.

First of all, as the funeral directors took James away, they asked what I wanted him to be wearing. I wanted him to be dressed in clericals (all black), but wearing both the cassock-alb that I had made for him back in the ’70s, when they were not readily available in the UK, and the handmade stole that the Chaplain of St George’s, Baghdad, had given him after he had led the Bible studies for their diocesan synod.

They also asked if I wanted his wedding ring back. The answer was an emphatic “No.” That ring had history. As a young curate, James did not have much spare cash; so both our wedding rings came from second-hand shops. A couple of years later, when he was conducting a retreat for the Oxford Mission in India, he was not very well, and lost weight, to the extent that his ring fell off and he thought that he had lost it.

He remembered stumbling when getting into a taxi on the main road into Calcutta, and, the next morning, went back to see whether, by any remote chance, the ring had fallen off at that point and might still be there. Literally hundreds of people had passed by on their way to work — but, yes, it was there, shining in the gutter. After that, he always wore it on his right hand, because that finger was a bit fatter.


I ALSO wanted him to be wearing his watch, because time-keeping was not his forte. His colleagues would be on tenterhooks as a service was about to start: where was James? Probably talking to somebody who had stopped him on his way over to the church or cathedral, or just fitting in another little job while he could.

He was once caught out, when attending quite an important anniversary service at Peterborough Cathedral with the Queen in attendance. The open-air car park was full, and he had to go to the multi-storey. In a Land Rover, this was a problem, but — with only minutes to spare — he shot up all the floors, hitting every height barrier as he went, and got into the cathedral just in time to join the procession as it set off, robing as he walked.

As soon as he died, I placed a largish brass ankh in his hands. For Egyptians, this represents life, and he was passionate about Egypt. It is also the Coptic cross, so not as heathen as some people believe.

Thus, he was ready to go into a very beautiful woven willow casket that was made to measure in Somerset. That was appropriate, as all his family had originally come from there, and his parents are buried there.


NOW for the little “treasure chest”: what went into that? James was very interested in archaeology (as his “Curiosity Cabinet”, with mostly Middle Eastern artefacts, attested). I thought that the little box should contain the “essence” of James and, maybe, puzzle archaeologists in years to come.

He was a farmer’s son, through and through; so the first item that went in (they all had to be quite small, as the box only measured about 15 × 10cm) was his Pony Club badge. Just as it was the Guide movement that had formed me, so it had been the Pony Club for James — and the club holidays and progressive tests, which he enjoyed.

I also put in a small model of a grey horse to represent Silk, his favourite horse. He often likened me to Silk, which had been bought at a favourable rate because it coughed every winter — and, living in old damp vicarages and deaneries, so did I. I took it as a compliment, because he loved that horse and rode all over the Wiltshire countryside on it. His wonder for nature never left him, and eventually led to ordination.

The next item was a model Land Rover, carved out of coal. In our married life, we bought just three cars, all Land Rovers: the blue one, the red one, and the green one (in which our children drove their father to his funeral). James had been brought up on the farm with an early version, and maintained that they made good, sociable parish vehicles. You could fit in all the jumble, or take the choir on outings; we even used one of them to move house. So, a Land Rover was quintessential.

Then, his New Forest Show president’s badge. In both Suffolk and Hampshire, James built up a good relationship between the cathedral and the agricultural community. He was so proud to be nominated as the show president, and, when the main show prize was awarded to a Guernsey cow, words nearly failed him, because that is what they had raised on their farm at home.

We did have a wonderful time, touring the showground; and being escorted around the main ring in a carriage by the Household Cavalry was probably the highlight of James’s career (even building the Millennium Tower in Bury St Edmunds paled into insignificance at that moment).


BECAUSE James died at the very end of 2020, it seemed appropriate to include a coin from that year. Despite trying to get one from local banks and the post office (during lockdown, remember), I failed totally, until I found a commemorative 50p piece on eBay, which I popped in.

The next two items I knew would perish fairly rapidly, but I wanted to include them anyway: they were his visiting card, which he had designed himself with an image of St Swithun’s apple, and raindrops; and a lovely family photo, taken shortly before he died. Strangely, he looked very well, and we were all smiling, trying to enjoy the time together, despite knowing that within a couple of weeks it would all come to an end.

Finally, I included a small sprig of rosemary for remembrance, and a scarab, recognising once again the Egyptian link of being “pushed” into the next life. While other things came to mind, I felt satisfied that this little casket held the essence of the man; and his passion for Old Testament studies will be evident in the words on the gravestone: “God saw everything that he had made and it was very good.”


The Very Revd James Atwell was ordained in 1970. After curacies in Dulwich and Cambridge, he served as Chaplain of Jesus College, Cambridge; Vicar and Rural Dean of Towcester; Provost and then Dean of St Edmundsbury; and Dean of Winchester. He died on 12 December 2020, aged 74 (Gazette, 1 January 2021).

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