July 2017: Having recently published the blog called [Not] The Angel of Death, I feel I’m on a roll, with another story from the same period in my life. The same Catholic parish and the same hospice as before. But let me skip back of few years earlier, to my first cremation.
When I was a deacon (six months before I was ordained as a priest) I was asked to do my first funeral. It was of a person known to me, the father of a dear friend, and the whole service was to be at their local crematorium. Funeral services and burials I am fine at, but I’ve never really been that keen on cremations, even though I have done loads!
I was nervous enough for three reasons: the funeral was of was a person known to me; it was my first one, and it was a cremation. But these points aside, nothing could have prepared me for the brass plaque that greeted me in the pulpit. It started Scripturally enough, then the tone changed. It read:
But I digress from the main story here. This memoir is about someone else, and about the funeral and cremation he wanted. Just as with [Not] The Angel of Death, I was making my visit around all the patients at the local hospice. Obviously, I had a pastoral and sacramental duty of care to the Catholics, but I could quite as easily be found spending time with anyone at all who wanted the company. I had some amazing philosophical (and theological) debates with one particular patient; let’s call him Frank. The moment I met Frank he categorically stated
“I am an atheist! You can come and talk if you want, but none of that God or eternal life mumbo jumbo! And what’s your name: I wont be calling you ‘Father’.”
Haha! That was all fine by me. Over the next few weeks, Frank and I got to know each other really well, as he drew close to the end of his life. I also witnessed the tension – especially in him – when his mother and his partner, of many years, would take it in turns to visit him. They would alternate visiting times with him and by-pass each other, even in the doorway of his room, only begrudgingly acknowledging that the other one even existed!
Frank and his girlfriend saw no need to get married. They had been happy together for decades; they shared everything together and decided that as they never wanted children, and were both committed atheists, they had no need for any formal marriage certificate. They didn’t believe in marriage as anything more than a civil contract; but even that civil contract didn’t really appeal to them. That’s what stuck in his mother’s throat! She wanted the full works for her only son; a big wedding and ensuing grandchildren (it was way too late for that now!) She could never forgive “her” (the girlfriend) for not doing “the right thing” by her son. Yep, I even got time to spend with the two females in Frank’s life, too, obviously never at the same time or in the same air space! They were as cantankerous as each other!
As Frank got close to death, he asked me if I would do his funeral and cremation. “No God stuff!” he insisted: “Just a good Humanist funeral!” He did agree to me wearing a black suit and Roman collar, and I was allowed to say a few words about him and his favourite “poem”.
Although Frank was a staunch atheist, he told me that his favourite “poem” was the passage in the New Testament about Love, so typically read at weddings, but not so much at funerals.
1 Corinthians 13, The Jerusalem Bible
So, without mentioning the word “God” at all, or doing anything remotely religious, the Catholic priest did a Humanist funeral service in the crematorium, standing in front of Frank’s body in the coffin. I was flanked, on either aisle, by the mother, and her entourage on the one side, and the partner and her entourage on the other. Someone read Frank’s favourite “poem”, then I was permitted to say a few words.
I remember drawing on the love-motif in the “poem”, and saying how each and every person was in the crematorium because they each loved Frank in their own unique way. Whichever dimensions of love they shared with this man, those links bound them to the person who was now in this ‘box’ before them. They were like beams of love from each of them, connecting them to him. But the thing with love is that it works best when it spreads out and touches others, too. So I went on … saying how each of the people present were all ‘related’ to Frank, and therefore to each other, because of this one, common, Love they all shared, in their own unique ways, with him.
I said a bit more than that, of course, but that’s the main gist of it. Rather than me feel a tension in the air between the ‘opposing camps’, I actually perceived the whole ceremony as rather a loving and healing event. After I committed Frank’s body to be cremated, and pushed the button to close the curtains on his life, I was completely bowled over when I went to walk out down the aisle. Frank’s mother stepped out of her pew as if to rugby-tackle me, but instead, she linked her arm around mine. She then motioned to the partner to do the same, too! The three of us walked out together, and they then held hands. They even hugged each other and spent time together afterwards.
Whether that new-found relationship ever lasted, I honestly don’t know; but it was an amazing moment to witness, and a true honour for me, indeed.