Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Accompanying Travellers

Yesterday was a quiet uneventful day, apart from an afternoon walk in the rain to St Catherine's to open up for a group of women who wanted to arrange flowers and decorate for the funeral of a fourteen year old girl from a Traveller family. They used mainly pink flowers and pink ribbon for bows on pew ends, giving the church a festive appearance as if for a wedding. It took a couple of hours to complete, but when they'd finished, the church looked beautiful. Much thought had been given to preparing the place, and to planning the service, as I discovered over the past week of making arrangements with a young cousin of the deceased in charge of making everything happen. He was impressively well organised.

This morning, I was picked up and driven across town to the Shirenewton Caravan park, the home base for the Traveller community in the Wentloog coastal plain east of Cardiff, to join the family vigil over the girl's white casket and pray with them. The park was crowded with cars, vans, and several lorries carrying floral tributes. Over a hundred people of all ages gathered outside the family home waiting in silence while I prayed inside. Then I was asked to pray with those gathered outside, before the casket was closed and brought outside by six young bearers, brothers and cousins all smartly dressed in grey, wearing matching pink ties. Other male mourners also wore pink ties. We walked with the casket through the site to the hearse at the main gate, a slow 250 metres, for the six young bearers going bravely all the way without respite. I was ferried back to St Catherine's ahead of the cortege, to make sure all was ready. Already mourners were arriving from places other than the park. By midday about three hundred people were in church, and we were able to start on time. 

Dominic, one of our Parish placement students joined me in taking the service, sharing the readings and prayers, and we had a choir of five to sing the hymns, as the congregation was unused to singing hymns in church, we were told. I read a brief eulogy prepared by a family member, plus a couple of moving thoughtful poems written for the occasion by a family member. A couple of thoughtfully chosen Country and Western songs were played on a portable karaoke machine, which produced the only awkward anomaly in the service. The device was being controlled from a smartphone. On two occasions the signal dropped, and when control was re-established it broadcast a loud digital 'Connected' message, during the the readings. Fortunately Dominic had enough presence of mind not to be distracted. It was definitely a Keep Calm and Carry on' moment. 

Afterwards, when we arrived a Western Cemetery ahead of the cortege the place was already crowded with mourners. Another group from further afield, had gone there directly, perhaps aware of the large number that would be attending church. The route taken by the cortege passed outside Ty Gwyn special school which the girl had attended since she was three. I was told that pupils had created a special 'photo wall' in remembrance of their departed classmate. Such an outpouring of love for the child by family and community in every way. It was a privilege to play a small part in this with them.

While we waited for the cortege to arrive, we sheltered from the drizzle in the cemetery manager's office and donned our robes there. He told us that he's now responsible for four Council run cemeteries across the city, and has to oversee interments in them all, which must present problems sometimes. The work team preparing for burials is a quarter of the size now that it was a decade ago, and probably not as strong, as workers enlisted when they were a lot younger come up towards retirement and may not be able to do the job physically as they used to. Redeploying them can be problematic, even more so when the pool of manual workers employed has been drastically reduced by budget cuts.

As many as five hundred people were around the grave for the interment. Doves and balloons were released, after the Committal, and many pink flowers were cast into the grave along with pink ties, shed by gentlemen mourners present. The mourners themselves filled in the grave once the formalities were over. We didn't stay for that, as we could have been there another hour in the drizzle to no good purpose. The crowd was quiet and orderly, occupied with comforting and supporting each other, having played our part, there was nothing more we could offer. Many children were present, quiet and well behaved standing with their parents or siblings, no fidgeting or messing about, used to being included. 

It struck me throughout how remarkable this gathering of people was. Despite the weather, regardless of appearances, I felt I could have been in a crowd at a public event in Spain. Clare made an insightful comment when I mentioned this to her later. "Isn't this a community used to living a great deal more of their lives together in the open air?" It's a community which sticks to its traditions, and treasures its distinctiveness, even as it evolves its way of life in response to new challenges to earn a living. Some still move around, though many now live more settled domestic lives, except in the world of work that still calls for them to move around and be active outdoors.

It's been a memorable day of thought provoking experience, another first for me after forty eight years of public ministry. 

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