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Archive for the ‘Weddings, Christenings & Funerals’ Category

Thoughts triggered by reactions to flowers being left for Henry Vincent at the site of his death.

The churchwardens have been sent a new copy of the Diocesan Churchyard Regulations. The regulations are important on different levels, including the laying down of the law on what may be placed on a grave. This causes the Church of England all sorts of problems with grieving families who do not share the same ‘good taste’ as … well, who? Middle England? The Bishop? God?

The rural churchyard for which I’m responsible was formally ‘closed’ in the 1980s, with no new burials since then, so the current vogue for turning graves into shrines doesn’t really affect me as a churchwarden (thank goodness), but the news coverage of reactions to flowers being left on the south London street where alleged burglar Henry Vincent died after being stabbed by the pensioner he tried to rob, has given me pause for thought beyond the issue of the rights and wrongs of plastic flowers on graves.

Why do people put more focus on the site of a death than on the place where the person’s remains are laid to rest? And why do people mark that location with not only with flowers, but balloons, or football shirts, toys and other memorabilia?

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Almost two years ago, one of our flock, a teacher called Penny, was driving home from school on a summer afternoon. Suddenly, someone on a motorbike came through her windscreen. He died instantly.

Penny was exonerated in the enquiry: the motorbike rider apparently pulled out of the traffic coming towards her, overtaking several cars. Because those cars were slowing down to enter a 30mph zone they bunched up, and the gap on his side of the road that the motorbike rider expected to pull into disappeared, and he had nowhere to go. Penny’s instinctive swerve was evidenced by the tyre marks on the road, but the motorbike kept coming.

Flowers in cellophane appeared at the side of the road the next day, laid by the man’s family who live in the town 10 miles away. And then candle lanterns, and a resin statue bearing comforting words, a couple of good luck charms, a bunch of plastic/glittery flowers, and some schnapps (?) in a bottle. And a wooden cross with an engraved plaque. Then a two-foot tall conifer was planted.

Two years after his death, this roadside shrine is still on the main road outside our village, as you can see from the photo, taken this morning. Fresh flowers in cellophane are placed on a regular basis. Candles are re-lit. The conifer is growing. The Council mows around it when they cut the verges.

And yet I assume that, depending on the faith tradition of the motorbike rider, the family held some kind of funeral ceremony, with a cremation or burial. There is a place where his mortal remains lie, which his family can memorialise to their hearts’ content and to hell with Churchyard Regulations!

So why does the family create, and tend this shrine?

Penny’s physical injuries healed within a few weeks; her mental injury has not. During term time she drives past the shrine twice a day, five days a week. She lives with the knowledge that she was driving the car which killed a 30-something husband and father. Every time she passes the spot, she sends up a prayer for the man who died, and thanks God that she is alive.

She does not need the shrine to remind her that a man died there. And nor should his family.

The right place to remember a loved one is a churchyard or garden of remembrance. 13 years ago my brother and I saw our parents buried in the quiet country churchyard of our childhood.  They have simple headstones, carved with good words that do them honour. Snowdrops and cowslips from our family home have been planted in the turf.  One or other of us makes a (long) journey once or twice a year to lay a sprig of holly at Christmas, or a rose in summer. Simple. Dignified. Minimal environmental impact.

And what of the site where Henry Vincent died? The people who tied those brightly-wrapped bunches of flowers to the fence, along with balloons and messages were/are extremely insensitive towards the Osborn-Brooks family who, like my friend Penny, will never recover from the tragic encounter. People should not need to build a shrine where Henry Vincent died: they will have a grave.

 

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OK, so it’s Advent. And that means ‘no flowers in church’. Which I sort of understand, because it is the Church of England’s ‘other Lent’ period. A time of preparation, a time of waiting. So lovely Suzy who runs the flower rota ‘gets’ this, and the pedestal of red chrysanths (with a Union Jack draped around the stand) that she created for Remembrance Sunday has been taken down.

Instead, we have a modest Advent wreath on a small table at the Chancel steps. It is of holly and ivy only, and around it are three purple and one pink candle, while in the centre is one white one.

BUT. This Sunday, the Second Sunday in Advent, we have an infant baptism as part of the usual service. A happy family christening involving 20 local, and not-so-local ‘un-churched’ people. And they don’t understand why the Rev Adrian has ruled ‘no flowers’. Why can’t doting granny arrange pink roses round the bottom of the font?

And next Thursday, we have the funeral of a much-loved elderly villager. A great supporter of church even when she was bed-bound. “I can hear you singing the hymns from my room” Aggie always told me. “I sing along too.”

Her grieving husband has already asked Suzy to buy some white lilies for a pedestal. Suzy rang me in consternation. “What shall I do?” she asked. “I know the Rev won’t want any flowers except what might be on the coffin, but I didn’t have the heart to tell Ted. To be honest, I don’t think I could have explained it convincingly!”

Indeed. And I’m not sure I could either. So I dodged this particular bullet and emailed the Rev Adrian, who had yet to sit down with Ted and plan the service. The floral ball is in the Rev’s court.

What do you do in your church? Would you ‘bend the rules’ for the christening and the funeral? How would you explain it?

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The Rev Fred is bravely tackling the difficult topic of Death, Funerals and Bereavement for our Lent meetings. Like many rural parishes, we have a largely 50+ population and for every wedding or baptism in church we’ll have six or seven funerals. It’s a privilege, and feels right, to say goodbye to an octogenarian in the village church, and hold the wake in the pub or the village hall. It means that all their elderly friends in the village can easily attend (on foot) as well as the family, who are more often than not far-flung.

We lost two elderly widows just after Christmas, within a week of each other. But sadly, for reasons best known to themselves, the families both opted for a service of Cremation in the city 15 miles away, and the village church was not required, though the Rev Fred was asked to officiate at each one. The two ladies’ elderly friends were very upset but various of us rallied round and provided chauffeur services so they could get to the Crematorium safely.

I asked the Rev Fred how these decisions are usually made. Does he contact bereaved families and offer his/our services? Or is he not supposed to ‘lobby’ for the church? His answer was a bit worrying: it’s the undertaker who most families turn to immediately, and who steer the decisions.

Actually, of course, we don’t call them undertakers any more do we? They’re funeral directors, and that is what the do: they direct funerals. And I think that’s how the church has got nudged sideways in all of this. The Rev Fred says that funeral directors ‘like’ cremations more than funerals (though I’m not sure why). Perhaps it is easier to arrange? Cheaper for a family if it’s just ‘the Crem’ rather than ‘crem’ AND church for a memorial celebration?

I am disturbed. The two local funeral directors seem nice enough, and we give them great support at the church, always ensuring that there’s a helpful ‘sexton’ on hand (often me, or one of the PCC). We make life easy for them (and the family) from blocking off parking for the hearse to putting reserved notices on the family pews and beautiful wooden bowls out for retiring collections. Yet I feel that they’re pushing bereaved families towards what is for them the ‘easy’ option of the Crem.

How can the Rev Fred and I get people to understand that the village Church is there for everyone, whether or not they’ve recently been a member of the congregation? And that a funeral is for everyone who is left behind, not simply for the person who has died.

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Getting tuned into General Synod via Twitter and though it’s been a busy day at work, have tried to keep track of zillions of #synod tweets. Something that really came out of left field is the decision to increase fees for 2013 and beyond, by (according to The Telegraph) around 50%.

Since it is the Rev Fred and I who do all the hard work, and no-one seems to have asked us what we feel about fees, I’m somewhat surprised. Apparently, fees for getting married in church will go up to £415 (including having the banns read) while a funeral will go up to £160.

I thought we were in a recession? Are we not all struggling with inflation, VAT increases, wage freezes and cutting back? Why does the Church of England think it’s a good thing to suddenly inflate fees? What message is that sending to little old ladies worried about funeral costs, or young couples deciding between a church or civil wedding?

We already struggle to overcome the feeling best expressed as “I’m not very churchy” when it comes to funerals. “But the church is for everyone,” the Rev Fred says. “It’s your village church, and you don’t have to pass a test or have been a regular attender to make use of it – it’s there for you.”

But from next January, that’s only if you can pay £160 to us, as well as pay for the coffin, the car, the pall bearers, the flowers and the organist.

Does anyone know if we’re allowed to waive fees to those in need?

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I haven’t felt like blogging for a while. The day to day story of a country churchwarden and her trusty terrier seemed a bit trivial after the village was hit by the accidental death of one of our most popular young men.

At the beginning of August, a dramatic farm accident took the life of a beautiful young man who was born and brought up in our little community. Richard married an equally lovely girl from the next village only 18 months ago. They managed to buy a little farm-worker’s cottage and though they both worked long hours, they took part in village life, whether that was enjoying a pint in the pub or volunteering to run Splat the Rat at the church fete. They lowered the average age of our little congregation considerably on the occasions – more frequent than for most people in their late 20s – when they came to church. They had just been granted planning permission to turn their tiny two-bedroom cottage into a three-bedroom home so they could start a family.

When the accident happened, the Rev Fred was on holiday. I heard about it on local radio, and as I was stumbling up the High Street to their little cottage, to see if Vicky was home, part of me (I’m ashamed to say) hoped that she wasn’t, because I had no idea what I would say to her. But she’d already been wrapped in the loving support of her parents and close family, and was not in the cottage. That night I phoned the Rev Fred to let him know.

Perhaps because it was August, and relatively quiet on the news front, Richard’s death attracted the attention of the local media. I was pretty surprised to answer the phone to our local TV station, and local papers the next day: the result, I think, of Vicky being at her parents’ house, and my number being given out by the Rev Fred’s answerphone. For a day or two, I seemed to be the only person the media could get at. They were looking for eulogies, for sound-bites about Richard and the tragedy, and I felt unprepared to give them what they wanted.

In the Rev’s absence (Ryanair not being that flexible), two days after Richard’s death, I found myself sitting with Vicky and her best friend in the little cottage. I felt woefully unprepared to provide any comfort in the face of such a terrible tragedy. I have known a dozen deaths since I moved to the village, each one a sadness, but with the comfort of a long life well lived. In some cases, death has come as a release from pain, or as a friend at the end of a long road.

But what do you say to a 27 year old who has lost the love of her life in a random accident? A strong young man at the beginning of a happy family life? Very calm, very keen to do things right, Vicky asked me what her options were and I realised that she had no idea how to go about organising a funeral. At her age, Vicky had plenty of weddings under her belt, but never a death. I did my best, but my best felt sadly lacking.

A few days later someone asked me “Where was God in that accident?” Where indeed? All I felt I could say was that, life is often random. Sometimes terrible things happen to good people. But I hope (though I am not always sure) that God comes in at this point: to help Vicky through the weeks, months and years ahead.

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A strange encounter early yesterday evening, as the Terrier and I ended our walk around the village and went to lock up the church.

As I was watering the flowers (since the volunteer arranger had done the pedestal on Friday and they were already bone dry) a young-ish couple came into church.

Always glad to see visitors, but not wanting to seem like an over-eager shop assistant, I hailed them with a cheery ‘hello’ and let the Churchwarden’s Terrier escort them round the church for a few minutes.  Flowers rehydrated, I zipped up the nave and struck up a conversation.

“We’re visitors…  Looking for a church to get married in.”

Oooh, lovely, I thought, since we’d not had a wedding for a year (see previous post).

“And where are you from?” I asked, imagining they were going to say their granny lived in the village and they were on a recce, or that they used to live here but moved away…

“We’re from M – – ” the man said, naming a market town about 15 miles away. “And we’ve been driving around all afternoon looking for a pretty church to get married in.  This looks nice.  Would hold about the right number of people.  Have you got a red carpet?  She wants to walk up a red carpet.”

I confess I was more than a bit non-plussed.   Is this what they call Wedding Tourism?  The random picking of a pretty village miles from home, just so it fits the fantasy and looks nice in the pictures?

Of course, lots of people who are not Christians get married in church.  And they don’t set foot in the building again until they want to ‘christen’ the babies.  That (sadly) is normal.  But at least the couples who get married here usually have some connection with the village, through residency, family connection or sentiment.

Disconcerted, but not wanting to be stand-offish, I said I was sure that if the bride wanted to supply her own red carpet, she could certainly walk up it… and would she like the Rev Fred’s phone number and email?

But I’m not really sure how I feel about this. From one point of view, shouldn’t I be glad that they want to mark a major milestone in their life in church, and our church at that? Does it matter if they live miles away? On the other hand, does it reduce God’s house to the level of just another wedding venue? Answers on a postcard please (or post a comment)!

We’ll see what happens.  Wish I could see the Rev’s face when she asks for the red carpet…

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I don’t count myself as a ‘professional Christian’, and though I’ve now realised there are thousands of christian blogs out there, most are too far removed from my low-church everyday Anglicanism to be relevant and the best are written by ‘professional Christians’, in other words by bishops, vicars and theologians. This means that while they’re very erudite they’re also a bit heavy for daily digestion by this full-time worker and part-time Churchwarden. But there are a few who I like to dip in and out of, including Clayboy.

Being in wedding mode my eye was caught by his post about the CofE’s Weddings Project, within which he’s linked to a popular video on YouTube called Kevin and Jill’s wedding. Do go and have a look, it’s a huge hoot and I agree with Clayboy when he says ‘I defy anyone… to watch the video without a smile and a sense of joy.’

I don’t think our little church would have had room for Kevin and Jill’s dance, but I suspect that, if Lucy and Simon had requested something similar, the Rev Fred might have been up for it!

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