I had a funeral yesterday morning at Thornhill crematorium to start this half term week the first of three. A retired steelworker in his mid sixties born and bred in Splott. The chapel was full to overflowing, with about 350 people, former colleagues and friends from the community in which he grew up. I gave an obituary on behalf of the family, and his two children also spoke movingly. When I got home I had a call about another funeral for two weeks hence. So it goes on. A funeral director said to me "I don't know how we'd manage without the help of you retired clergy." I don't know how the reduced number of full time clergy also manage at busy times like this.
Today the diocesan electoral college meets in Llandaff Cathedral to elect a new Bishop. I hope that whoever is chosen is aware pastorally of the great strain funeral ministry places on clergy, and how this can dominate their work and missionary priorities. I believe it's still an important service to offer to the wider non-churchgoing public, part of knowing and being known, maintaining bonds of affection between church and local community. The fact that many non-churchgoing people still request a funeral in church, and that the building figures in different ways in family histories is important. Lay people are involved in welcoming and preparing for services but we need more of them trained and authorised as officiating ministers, as there aren't enough Readers and NSM clergy available. Will it ever happen I wonder?
At lunchtime, I had my second funeral, this time in St John's, of a woman in her early sixties, and the church was full. Afterwards at the crematorium, the chapel was half full, half the numbers of yesterday, but that's still a lot of people. The family didn't want hymns, but selected some pieces of soul music and reggae to play. Each track was carefully recorded on a separate labelled CD, but none of the would play, as the tracks, presumably MP3s or WAVs were recorded to disc in data not CD format. I had warned them to be careful about this, but maybe I hadn't been understood. Thankfully, their nervousness about getting it right meant that one family member turned up with a laptop and extension speakers, and another with the same tracks on a phone, plus a Bluetooth Boombox. The latter was tried first, but it kept disconnecting and reconnecting with a robotic voice informing the world of its status. The same as happened at a funeral a couple of weeks ago in St Catherine's.
The congregation seemed quite relaxed about it, and thankfully the guy with the laptop quickly stepped in and stopped the whole occasion developing into a farce. I announced and commented briefly on each track, wondering if I sounded like a Radio 2 deejay doing a prayer sandwich. It all worked out in the end, and I found myself walking, first out of church and later out of the crem chapel, swaying gently to the reggae beat. It's actually easier to do that than walk against the catchy rhythm. It reminded me of being back in St Paul's half a lifetime ago. Several people noticed and commented with a smile. I was already remembering church processions in Jamaica and in black Pentecostal churches back here in UK where this was just the way it happened naturally. Ah happy days!
At the end of services which are painfully difficult, due to a perceived untimely death, I can feel some satisfaction abut my role, if I see people visibly relaxing and smiling as they walk out, even if they have tears in their eyes at the same time. It's an important moment of closure, a chance to draw breath before grief returns with a stinging sense of absence, and the loneliness often associated with it. Yet again I was glad that I had little else to do for the rest of the day, apart from go food shopping with Clare. And wonder how the electoral college was getting on.
When I learned, late afternoon that there was no election news today, I thought about ringing my old friend Martin, to discuss the possible candidates but before I could, he rang me and said what I'd meant to send him in a text message - No white smoke today.