UPON DEATH AND EULOGIES
I am a connoisseur of eulogies because I hear so many of them, good ones, bad ones and unutterably terrible ones. I have decided that to do myself justice I will need to write my own! Better not to be eulogised at all than to be poorly eulogised. While still a university student, the poet John Heath Stubbs eulogised himself in a way that would surely resonate with most Anglican university students. I remember it as going something like this:
Orthodox of belief, concerning the English Church,
Barring some heresies he would have for recreation,
Too often left these sound principles (as I am told) in the lurch,
Being troubled by idleness, lechery, pride and dissipation.
My priest father could not stand eulogies. He left instructions in his will that there should be none at his funeral and added “... I demand the cheapest coffin possible and a curse on anyone who puts any ‘Stone’ on my grave. A curse also on any Mortician who ‘Tarts me up’. I would wish for no mourning, no dark clothes, no ‘Bun-fight’ - merely a family drink to wish me well. Wherever I die (unless a plane accident drops me in the sea) I would like the 1662 Prayer Book Service with Psalm 90 and, if possible two hymns (No: 682 in the old A & M book) ‘Awake our soul’ and (No: 298 in A & M Revised) ‘Lead Kindly Light’, sung to the second tune by J.B. Dykes (The only way I can get this tune is to die!!), but I shall not haunt my sons if the tune ‘Sandon’ has to be sung. I would prefer the Officiating Priest and family only at the cemetery. .....thanks to all my family for their love and care to their Mum and me. Commandment No. 5 well and truly kept!”
The cost of coffins is truly absurd. I would like to be buried in the very cheapest of coffins, preferably a cardboard one. A local undertaker informed me recently, as we contemplated a particularly ostentatious one, that there are models costing $30,000 each and that one funeral he undertook in Melbourne cost in total, over a quarter of a million dollars. In St Augustine’s we try to insist upon a pall covering the coffin of everyone. In death all should be equal and post mortem rivalry in coffins is despicable.
A clever and delightful little verse on death was published recently in the Spectator:
My ranks of friends are getting serried;
Another one has just been buried.
I often wonder what I’m doing -
Mourning their loss, or simply queuing?
Margaret and I were discussing funerals recently and she asked me who I would want to take and speak at mine. There’s no one any more that stands out as an ideal choice I am afraid, no one who knows me well enough to tell the horrible truth in so loving a way as to make it palatable. It was during this conversation with Margaret and the realisation that no one could do me justice that I suggested, only half in jest, that I had better perhaps write my own.
I have not infrequently wondered whether we should not offer “dress rehearsals” of funerals, so that we can enjoy our own from the pew rather than from the coffin. The trouble with this would be that no eulogy could ever be really honest if it’s subject was alive and listening. The worst of eulogies are those that are dishonest. Eulogisers not infrequently paint so rosy and sentimental a picture of the deceased that it verges on the nauseating. Ironically, to eulogise someone alive and listening would probably have the opposite effect, we would dishonestly understate our feelings of admiration and love to spare our subject’s embarrassment.
At my funeral I would like Bach’s famous mourning cantata, number 106 “Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit” to be played in full, about twenty minutes in all! This cantata writes Ludwig Finscher is “almost entirely constructed from biblical texts and hymn stanzas; the inspiration which Bach drew from this potent language enabled him to produce.... a work of genius such as even great masters do not often achieve, and which enabled him, when he was only 22 years old, at one stroke to leave his contemporaries far behind.” When I first listened to it seriously I was very, very moved. It begins with a short, solemn and lovely instrumental sonatina featuring a solo recorder and viola de gamba. There follows the opening chorus interspersed with solo arioso pieces. It is not at all gloomy and although musically complex it is beautiful to listen to, expressive of great faith and trust: God's own time is the very best of times. In him living, moving, we exist, as long as he wills. In him shall we die at the right time, when he wills. Ah, Lord, teach us to remember that our death is certain, that we might gain wisdom. Set ready thine house; for thou shalt perish and not continue living! This is the ancient law: man, thou must perish! It ends with a heart stopping soprano: Yes, come, Lord Jesus!
There follows a soprano, tenor and choral rendering of the words: Into thine hands now do I commit my soul; for thou hast redeemed me, Lord, thou my faithful God. This day shalt thou with me in paradise be.
In peace and joy do I depart,
as God doth will it;
consoled am I in heart and mind,
calm and quiet.
As God me his promise gave:
my death is changed to slumber.
There follows a final great choral setting of the words:
Glory, laud, praise and majesty
To thee, God, Father, and Son, be giv'n,
The Holy Ghost, with these names!
May godly strength
Make us triumph
Through Jesus Christ, Lord, Amen.
What a way to go! Those words, combined with the sublime music are all that need to be said. The Christian Faith and hope in the hands of Bach knock unbelief and faithlessness to the ground and trample them to death!
Perhaps the most concise and honest eulogy on record is that recounted in the following story..... In a small village where everyone knew every one else a man died whom everyone detested because he was so vile. There was not a person in the village who hadn't been cheated, insulted and hurt by him. His parson could not think what to say about such a man at his funeral, and yet no one should be buried without some commendation to God. He wrestled with the problem for hours and then decided on a course of action.
At the appropriate time in the service he stood up and said "Would someone who knew the deceased better than I do please now come forward to say a few words about him?" There was silence. No one stirred. The parson tried again. "Would someone please come forward to say a few words...." Silence.
Desperate now the parson pleaded once more for someone to come forward. To his relief a man got up, shuffled to the lectern and cleared his throat to eulogise the deceased. The parson relaxed, there is, after all, no one about whom something good cannot be said he thought. The eulogy was honest, complimentary and brief.... "His brother," the man said before going back to his seat, "was even worse!"