FUNERAL RITES

Having foolishly remarked last week that I liked wearing black and looked good at funerals, I found myself this week on the island of Arran attending the burial ceremony of a much loved friend.   The lady had led a long and fulfilled life, and had said to me some months ago that she was content to go, yet we who remained felt grief and sorrow that she had not been granted a few more years or months (in comfort) amongst us.

As you become more mature, you pass through stages of your life.   In your youth, you attend weddings.   Later, perhaps, christenings.      You progress to the weddings of your own children and the children of friends and relatives.   Regrettably however as your years accumulate, you attend more funerals.

While obviously funerals tend to follow a set pattern which ends with the committal one way or another of the body, they are also surprisingly diverse.   The person almost invariably dies as they have lived, and their funeral (if it was directed according to their wishes or those of persons who knew and loved them) reflects their lives in ways both obvious and subtle.

The funeral on Arran had I think been directed by the deceased lady specifically to comfort and console every mourner and it was one of  the most uplifting rites of passage I have ever attended.   There was a sense in which each and every mourner, from the chief to the most minor, was warmly welcomed and appreciated.

Sometimes one attends funerals when the organisers have scores to settle; or use the occasion to display their wealth, power or talent.    ‘We will be the chief mourners and everyone will be looking  at us,’ as someone once said to me.     I appreciated that apart from a brief mention of the widower, no particular mourner was named, no list of relatives;  and although it is sometimes good to hear contributions from various persons, on this occasion only the minister (a lady) spoke, and this was soothing.   She spoke sincerely and warmly of the deceased, and certainly so far as I was aware, every word she said in praise of our friend was true.   I had always been aware that the lady possessed a deep and vibrant personal faith, and her choice of hymns was reassuring and faith affirming.

There was a suggestion, slipped in so swiftly and briefly that you might not have noticed it, that this lady had forgiven anyone who might feel in their secret heart that they had anything to be forgiven for, and that they should now go on their way in peace.   All this was conducted, as the lady’s own life had been, with modesty, tact and grace.     Each member of the family was warm and giving, and you realised that not only had they inherited their parents’ generosity of spirit, they had benefitted from having such a lady as their mother.

The minister conducted the service, the full burden of which fell on her, with competence, sincerity, a proper Christian spirit, and with all her personal feelings suppressed so that it was only as she drew her remarks to a conclusion that you could see that she too had loved the departed and what an effort the occasion had cost her.

I felt grateful for having had the privilege of knowing our friend, and that in her leaving us she enfolded each one of us in a loving embrace.

May we all depart with her grace.

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THIS BLESSED ISLE

Last September we undertook a tour of Scottish islands.

John has relatives who live on Arran, so over the years, we have visited it many times.   Arran is a very lovely  island, and just as with a beautiful woman it is difficult to define exactly what makes one woman beautiful and another merely attractive, so I have never been able to identify just what about Arran makes it so beautiful.   Perhaps it is that it has a great variety of scenery, and is often described as ‘Scotland in miniature’.    It has some standing stones at its centre, and is of a reasonable size.      Driving right round it would take about 3 hours.   It has 6 or 7 golf courses, several small towns, some nice places to eat, a distillery…   all you need on a Scottish island really.   Sitting in the Clyde estuary it is accessible.    It is warmed by the Gulf Stream and palms can grow on it.   Allegedly it is where Robert the Bruce met the spider.   There do not appear to be any remaining  indiginous people.   I have never met anyone with more than three generations associated with it, and so far as I know it has no accent peculiar to itself.

North was the song of our journey, for after Arran we made our way, for the third time, to Orkney.   This is a group of many islands, hunkered down in the fearsome Pentland Firth against the perpetual Atlantic gales.   It does not feel in the least like a Hebridean island, and belongs to the Scandinavian/Viking tradition.   It is beautiful in a bleak and stark way, with few hills (apart from on Hoy) and hardly any trees.   It has one of the loveliest and largest stone circles of the British Isles, (photograph courtesy of John) consisting  of very tall stones, which stand in a landscape virtually unaltered since  they were heaved into their places.   It has brochs, chambered tombs, stone age villages, a recent amazing archeological find of what they think is a large ‘temple complex’ which turns the presumed history of Neolithic peoples in Britain on its head, wonderful beaches, great bird life, renaissance ruins, and a tremendous second world war history.   It has a harsh and guttural accent and fine people, who have never been especially interested in tourism.

To me, the size of islands is very important.   My maternal family came from the island of Lewis, but island life has NEVER appealed to me.   In illustration of my phobia – we visited Gigha, a very small island.    We had a meal in the evening in one of its only two restaurants, called I think The Shack, or the Boat Shed and right beside the pier.    (Very nice too, good wine list and excellent waiter who combined all the many skills of that difficult job and pitched his role between formality and friendliness absolutely spot on).   However, next day, three different people, none of whom so far as we could recall had been in the restaurant with us, enquired if we had enjoyed our meal.  We fled the island in horror.

I recall that our tour guide in Iceland – a unique and lovely island – described his native land as ‘the second largest island in Europe.’    ‘Who are the largest?’, I enquired in all innocence.    “Why you are, of course,” he replied in surprise.  ‘Great Britain is the largest island in Europe.’

Ah, I thought.    He is surprised I don’t know that.   What he doesn’t realise is that although we know we are islanders, and are proud of our maritime skills, we don’t actually think of ourselves as ‘an island in Europe.’    We think we are the centre of the universe, glorious Albion, the isles of the blessed, this sceptred isle, God’s own chosen darlings, whae’s like us?    Largest island in Europe doesn’t even begin to describe how we see ourselves.