Beauty, in the winter of our lives…
Updated: May 6
Intimacy despite distance
So unusual were the circumstances of a recent funeral she took that network member, Catriona Foster, wanted to share a reflection on leading the service. She does so with the permission of the family involved and has called it 'Surprised by Intimacy'.
Many of us are witnessing the challenges facing those who are bereaved in these days of restricted travel and social distancing. One aspect of those challenges is the funeral of a loved one – always an important part of the grief journey, and a time when close family and friends come together for mutual support and much-needed intimacy. Now they are time-limited, place-limited and number-limited. Families may not be able to see each other (in person) and if they do, they may not be able to sit together at the service, let alone hug or kiss.
However, I have discovered that even in these difficulties, there can be precious moments: the treasures that are found in darkness.
I say this because I have taken the funeral last week of Nellie, a 96 year-old-lady whom I was very fond of. It has been a privilege and pleasure to plan the service with her daughter (by phone). As well as a mutual love and respect for her mum, we seemed to share a common mind about how we could best have a meaningful service and also enable family and friends who couldn’t be there to feel part of it.
Despite it being a close and loving family, this one daughter was the only one able to be present at the service itself. Her husband remained at home, unable to be there because of serious illness but followed through the service, dressed in his best suit for his beloved mother-in-law. I felt deeply for this courageous lady arriving on her own at the crematorium, waiting outside while the undertakers lifted the coffin out the hearse, then walking on her own behind it and sitting down alone in the chapel. She told me later that it made her realise how much we value physical intimacy. However, she had prepared herself mentally (and emotionally) for this situation and arrived clutching her mother’s old King James Bible and a palm cross. She wore a beautiful hat, just like her mother would have done. There was a strong sense that she was here to do business – to honour her mum before God and to say an official goodbye on behalf of her and the wider family. The sense of preciousness of the situation was tangible.
Being just her and me enabled a more bespoke service. Nellie’s daughter wanted me to do all the speaking and I was able to tailor-make it with just her in mind and therefore share at a deeper and more personal level in ways that are not possible with a bigger, more diverse group of mourners. That produced an intimacy despite the lack of physical intimacy. Perhaps another treasure, though you wouldn’t choose it, is that when there are no other mourners present you are able to fully focus on saying your personal goodbye. It is usually a valuable and treasured thing to see the variety of people who have come to mourn the loss of your loved one, but trying to acknowledge and speak to them can detract from expressing your personal grief.
The normal style of tributes wasn’t appropriate, but before the service we asked 13 close family members to write one or two sentences saying what they loved about their mum/nan/great-grandma, etc. This turned out to be a precious A4 sheet of heartfelt, poignant memories which I read out and held before God in thankfulness. We also had Nellie’s favourite poem – ‘Loveliest of Trees’ by A E Housman.
As we both held a freshly cut piece of spring blossom, I reflected on how it spoke to me of finding beauty even in the winter of our lives – the dark difficult days, whenever they might be. And the fact that Nellie had 3 score years and 10 and another score and another half dozen(!) to delight in the beauty of nature, and yet the beauty in this transient life is just a foretaste of a far greater beauty, beyond our imagining, in the life to come. Also included in this short service was, as always, a scripture reading and thought, prayers, commendation and committal. Having no hymns (except as entry and exit music) allowed us a bit more time to pause and reflect in silence.
The undertaker seemed surprised that we had taken so long when there were only two of us, but he didn’t know us!
With regards to the rest of the family and some close friends, I prepared a pamphlet with a photograph, words and prayers and some of the content of the service. Inserted in this was the A4 sheet of memories. In their own homes, there were some very special times of reflection at the exact time of the funeral. Nellie’s other daughter wrote, 'I sat in the garden where I had so often sat with Mum and followed the beautiful order of service. We lit a candle and our little cat she so loved to have on her lap sat on the bench beside us sitting on her swing seat.'
Intimate moments despite the distances.