You will have had days when ‘nothing has gone right’; I’m starting to edge towards the opinion that, when something really disruptive is about to happen, it sends out ripples echoing that disruption and disturbance back and forth, eventually affecting people who aren’t definitely involved in the event at all. Our Lay Reader Lillian says this is superstitious thinking, and a line of thought I shouldn’t pursue, but there you are, anyway.
It seemed, yesterday, like a fairly straightforward funeral service: that of an elderly lady loosely connected with the church, who’d lived a straightforward and quiet life. The service was put together by her nephew and all seemed fine. The day before, however, I realised that, after we’d leave the church, the family graveyard we were heading to was not at Stonemarsh but at Stonelake which is an entirely different place a dozen miles and an awkward drive further away. Oh well. For some reason I got my timings out of kilter and came to church half an hour earlier than I needed to, but that’s better than half an hour late, and there are always things I can be getting on with. Then I discovered that there’d been a misunderstanding about the music, but Malcolm the organist accommodated the mixup brilliantly and all seemed well. About three dozen people were in the church as I and Rhoda the crucifer headed out to meet the coffin.
Coming into church and reading the Sentences I was aware of a commotion to my left. It was Reg, one of the oldest and most loyal members of the congregation and one of the deceased lady’s neighbours, who with his wife had been coming to Swanvale Halt church for more than sixty years, and now slumped in his seat and attended by a couple of people. Once the coffin was in place I told the organist to keep playing quietly while I worked out what was happening. Reg was ashen pale: it wasn’t just an ordinary faint. ‘He said he felt poorly and asked for a glass of water,’ someone said. Under instruction via phone from the paramedics the undertaker’s men got Reg onto the floor and within moments we were into a CPR situation (thankfully not done by me). Others swung into action to sit with Reg’s wife and call other relatives, while I was left to hold him before God and liaise so that everyone knew what was happening. Poor Malcolm must have played that organ till his fingers were stiff, but it’s better than silence. It was only after a few minutes that I remembered that the old people’s day centre over the way might have a defibrillator (they had, installed just over a year ago, but I hadn’t given it a thought since). As I was crossing the car park, however, the ambulance arrived. 'It probably wouldn't have made any difference,' I was kindly told later. No, it probably wouldn't have, but I'll never be sure, now. I should have cleared the church at this point, if not before (although to an extent people were already clearing themselves), but I think I was so concentrated on the drama off to the side, and my mind was so occupied with how to manage events, that it didn’t occur to me until Rhoda suggested people could be given tea in the hall. So the church was, finally, cleared. ‘What are the constraints on your time?’ I asked the undertaker: ‘None, sir,’ he said. Just as well it was a Friday afternoon.
The paramedics surrounded Reg with the armoury of the medical battlefield, and fought, but it was clear enough what we were moving towards. He’d been gone, essentially, almost from the beginning. I spoke to the paramedic who seemed to be senior. ‘Because it’s an unexpected death in a public place,’ she explained – and I never knew this, certainly, which is partly why I’m telling you – ‘he can’t be moved until the police arrive and have sorted everything. Because he’s already dead and nobody is in danger it won’t be a priority call and frankly it could take hours.’ There were two possibilities now, that we move Reg to the church hall and resume the service in church, or abandon the church service and hold the whole funeral at the graveside in Stonelake. However the paramedics consulted and agreed to the first option, while the congregation were taken out again through the side door and back into the main part of the church. I said the Nunc Dimittis with Reg’s wife and a prayer over him, marking that cold forehead with the cross. One of the paramedics was clearly upset: it turned out he’d just had a family bereavement, and so I spoke to him for a bit. I found myself thinking, as we do when middle age gets the better of us, They’re so bloody young.
For a minute I thought we would curtail the service and not sing, but then reflected, no, we need some defiance, some normality. I put what had happened into context, thanked everyone for their patience and forbearance, and began – though it was, indeed, taken at a faster pace than normal. From there I made my way to Stonelake (much of the time behind a school bus squeezing down narrow lanes past Landrovers with their wing mirrors pushed in) and, on arrival at the picturesque but inconveniently isolated graveyard, discovered that I’d left the service book at church so I had to make it up. Mind you, provided you remember to say ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes’ which is the undertakers’ signal to lower the coffin, you can’t go too far wrong. Then bloody Trevor called me to talk about demons, no doubt, and I was left clutching my phone in my pocket to stifle the ring. What was it doing turned on? When did I do that? The perfect end, that was. ‘That’s the first time something like that’s ever happened to me,’ said the undertaker. ‘A glass of something might be in order this evening, I think, sir, for us all.’
I got back to church, found Marion the curate, who’d agreed to sit with Reg’s body, and the police, just as he was about to be taken away. I tolled the bell - ninety times, for him, sounding out across the centre of the village – and said Evening Prayer. As I read the Old Testament lesson from Exodus 13 I found myself exhaustedly saying ‘Pharoah took six hundred pickled chariots’ instead of ‘picked chariots’.
As well as the loss and the shock, which rippled out through the parish very quickly, I’m left with stunned gratitude at the way so many people acted throughout the drama, the professionalism, the kindness, the courage. God knows what I would have done had it just been me. But it wasn't, it was the Body of Christ at work, even those who didn’t know they were part of the Body of Christ. And I will remember the things I failed to do right. It’s just as well that today is sunny, and has brought more and very different work. God rest your soul, Reg Hand, our brother, and may we never see another day like that one.