Thursday, 24 December 2015

Twenty years after a father's funeral service

Yesterday went well. My nephew and I went to the church in Upper Sydenham where his father was such an important and well-regarded figure until his sudden death it Christmastime 1995. Michael spent almost three hours discussing the impact of that death with the priest, Father Paul, at the church itself and then at the rectory, before we came away.

Obviously I can't write here of matters very personal to my nephew. I will simply say that he regarded it as a very important event, to go back after twenty years to see where his father's ashes were buried; and then to speak to the very man who had been his father's friend and spiritual confidant, and who had officiated at the funeral service. I would not be at all surprised to see Michael return, and take that conversation a little further. I can fully see why Wayne trusted Father Paul - a big, warm, welcoming man who showed us humanity, breadth of mind, and helpful insight, but did not judge.

So I'll stick to what I myself did and thought.

We arrived only a few minutes late, despite the unpredictable south London traffic, and were met at the church entrance by Father Paul. We sat informally in the front pews. Fortunately Father Paul was well up to speed concerning my own personal history, and appreciated my wish to be there in support of Michael. I insisted however that the focus should be on whatever my nephew felt he needed to see and discuss. It was essential that the visit covered more than just Dommett family happenings since 1995.

Both Michael and myself felt that we had deferred the visit much too long. This was an opportunity to find out more about Wayne's life, and what he had thought most important. Michael had long imagined that I knew all about my brother, and was simply not telling. It was not so at all. After his teens my brother's life went off in a very different direction from my own, and when we ever met - not more than three or four times a year - we did not speak about anything serious. So in fact Michael already knew much more about my brother than I did.

We both - separately - went out into the private enclosed courtyard to see the unmarked stone slab under which Wayne's ashes had been buried. Father Paul confirmed the correct slab by reference to a 'legal book' which identified who was buried where, with a diagram, which he showed to us. There were no inscriptions on any of these slabs. Having asked Father Paul's permission, I took some photographs to visually identify 'Wayne's slab' for future generations. They would be filed away with the rest of my genealogical material.

We had thought about buying some flowers on the way over, but ran out of time for it. Alone in the courtyard, I cast around in the flower beds for something suitable. But it was two days before Christmas, of course, and there were only leaves. I settled on a small yellow leaf - the simplest of wreaths - but knowing that my brother would have scorned anything elaborate or fussy, counting sincere intention far higher than any kind of purchased display. A humble marker, reverently chosen and placed, was more than enough. It clearly identified the slab in a wider view of the courtyard.

Wayne's ashes were there, under that leaf. Where was my brother himself? Was he looking on, or at least somehow aware of our pilgrimage? Unanswerable questions. I wasn't religious, not even moderately spiritual; I had no faith to provide a positive, assured response.

But later on, when Father Paul asked me as we left for home, I did say sincerely that I thought Wayne 'knew' we had been to his church, and had seen where his ashes were. It didn't feel untruthful to say so. Without specifically speaking of souls and spirits, I did feel that our visit had been noticed. In the same way, I was always aware of Dad whenever I went to Kentisbeare church in Devon. It was a place where we could still meet up. Even though Dad had been agnostic to the end. And myself, although not dogmatically 'atheist on principle', nevertheless taking nothing for granted in the absence of rational evidence, content instead to feel personally responsible for what I made of my own life, without a spiritual safety net to save me from my errors.

Father Paul showed us the Book of Remembrance, in which Wayne's name was written in a fine italic hand with a quotation from an early medieval cleric who was praising those who bear the likeness and manner of saints.

Then we adjourned to the rectory for tea and more talk. We had two generous hours of his time there. He, who must have important things to do at the church so close to Christmas. All I can say is that if most contemporary priests are like him, then Christianity will remain alive and kicking in England. And had he lived, I'm sure that by now my brother would have joined the clergy and made it his true life's work. No doubt we would have been slightly at odds, as siblings will be, but also united as the years drew us closer, as eternity loomed at us both, a black pit of Unknown.

Coincidentally, I caught an interview on The World At One on BBC Radio 4 today, with Ronald Blythe, editor, writer, and author of the 1969 book Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village, which became a successful documentary film-without-professional-actors about traditional rural life, in which Blythe took the role of vicar. See I imagine that my brother knew of him. They would have had much to say to each other. Wayne was good with words. He was both a reader and thinker.

And above all, he was an idealist, who expended his main energies on practical pastoral care. So very different from myself! Rightly or wrongly, he put the needs of the community before the needs of his own household. I refuse to judge him on that. If a man follows his nature, and commits himself to good causes on his doorstep, and is inspirational and commendable to those others who share his inclinations, should he be blamed for whatever he neglects? Are not selfishness and selflessness two sides of the same coin, and it all depends on your viewpoint?

Is that the awful sin of saints, to be different, to follow a calling wherever it may lead them, to abandon the ordinary things that ordinary people want?

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