Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Funeral oversight

Yesterday, the beginnings of a head cold laid me low and kept me indoors. This morning a funeral at St German's got me out of the house and in church by ten, functional, but needing to make an effort to give of my best. As has become almost obligatory these days, the family arranged hymns with the funeral director and had a special service leaflet printed. Normally, this is not a problem, even if the choice of hymns is tiresomely repetitive, and not what I'd have chosen if consulted for suggestions. 

The arrangements made by a bereaved family are usually made in a priest's absence if a funeral being planned is not of a regular church member.  The choice of an officiating minister may not have been considered by the next of kin, but rather left to the funeral director to phone around and find someone who's free, if they don't get lucky first time, asking the local Vicar. Often there's no opportunity for a full discussion, so arrangements are often presented to a cleric as a fait accompli. It's a fact of life and death in a city these days, something that has to be worked with, rather than fought against.

On this occasion, I was completely caught out. The second hymn choice as 'Ava Maria' (literally) and when I received the notification sheet from the funeral arranger, I took this to be a reference to a well known Marian hymn which appears in popular modern hymnals, rather than the classic text sung as an anthem to a melody either by Gounod or Schubert. Either way, I was mistaken. The leaflet printed the text of what I took to be a Marian devotional poem I'd never seen before, whose lengthy verse and metrical structure made it unlikely to find music that would make it singable.

After a quick discussion with Brian our organist, we agreed that hymn books should be given out to the congregation, to sing a Marian hymn which was less unlikely to be familiar, and I would read the un-singable text as well. We explained this to the chief mourners, who seemed somewhat bemused by the issue, possibly because they were in any case totally unfamiliar with all hymnody and just going the motions of doing what was recommended for such an occasion. They were at ease with this idea and so we proceeded. The poem wasn't easy to sight read. It didn't represent a high point in artistry with words. I hope I gave it my best effort, given how thick headed I felt due to the cold. In the end, all was well, and after the burial at Thornhill, several people expressed their appreciation, which was a relief.

It's extremely rare for me to get caught out like this. If only I'd spotted the possible anomaly and then checked it out during the bereavement visit. But by that time, text checking and printing had already taken place, as I understood. But whoever in the family had checked may have thought it all looked correct without any understanding of the content. I've never had this happen dealing with wedding arrangements. 

Admittedly, wedding preparation takes far longer. It's often discussed with a wedding planner, and then submitted to the officiating minister for approval, so anomalies can more easily be spotted. At funerals, there are often quirky choices of accompanying music, but only occasionally of hymns. It's astonishing that so many funeral requests still come to clergy, even in the face of competition from humanist, non-religious celebrants. There's rarely enough time to do the pastoral occasion justice, as the period between death and funeral, albeit increasingly lengthy these days, is so busy for those responsible for arrangements. Even so, in future I will be sure to double check the hymns arranged, with the next of kin, in person, just in case.

I was home again in time for lunch. Clare had cooked a curry, as we were to eat our main meal in the middle of the day, rather than the evening. Later I went on errands to Post Office and bank before heading into town to walk back home again through Bute Park. All morning and right through the funeral, Cardiff was shrouded in low level mist, so it was gratifying that the sky was clear while I was out walking, just as the sun was setting and birds were making their evensong. Some I could identify, but others were intriguingly unfamiliar. I have a lot more still to learn about the denizens of our city parks. 

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