Late for his own funeral

I’ve just got back from the church, where I was organist at the funeral of a man who had lived in the village for nearly 30 years. He had been involved with many village interests, such as the bowls club. The church was full, everyone had known and liked him.

The family had asked me to play Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring as a voluntary. I’d timed myself; 5 minutes, and worked out a couple of places to go back and play from again if I finished a little early. it’s tricky, that last voluntary as the coffin comes in. Ideally, you want the music to go on softly as the priest leads in the funeral cortège and finish about the same time he ends his introduction – 10 seconds either way is as much leeway as you have. The trouble is, you don’t know he’s approaching until he comes into the church; not if your organ is at the front (altar end) of the church at any rate (if it’s in a side room or loft, you can have a gofer to keep you informed) so you have to go by the time and hope that the hearse turns up on time too.

It didn’t. It was 15 minutes late.

The funeral cars were going to pick up the family from the house. This is a small village, but the driver had been given the wrong directions – left, left and left again was correct, but it’s where the first left is taken that matters. So when he was already running late, to drive worriedly past the church where the minister and the Sage (who had been directing mourners into the car park) were standing waiting, was disconcerting, especially as the crematorium was booked after the service and that’s quite some way away.

But that’s their problem. I didn’t know anything about the delay, so I played my bit and then repeated the last three lines, then went back to half way and played again, and then I started from the beginning, and then I played the last few lines and … well, yes, I suspect the congregation was as bored as I was. Although pretty, it is quite a repetitive tune.

At last the trestles the coffin was to stand on arrived. Considerably late, I might add; normally they are brought in before the congregation arrives. So I launched into the last page. And played the last three lines twice. Still no coffin. I started from the beginning all over again and was half way through when, at last, I heard the opening words of the funeral service. I switched seamlessly *cough* to the end again and finished at the same time as the opening address. I felt harassed. Fortunately, the first hymn was The Lord’s My Shepherd, which I could play with my eyes closed.

It was a lovely service. Near the end, waiting to play my closing piece, I glanced at the family in the front pew. The grandson, a lad in his early twenties, looked smart in his dark suit. As I looked, he took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes. Tears came into mine, too, and I had to look away.

Afterwards, Sybil the verger and Mrs B were talking about the man who’d died and his late wife. “Of course, no one made sandwiches like Eileen”, said one of them. “Lovely, they were.” “I remember,” said Sybil, “the first time Ivan made me a cup of tea. He asked how I’d like it and I said ‘weak’, so he poured my cup first. Always afterwards, he’d remember to pour my cup first so that it would be just as I like it. He always remembered that sort of thing about everyone.”

A simple fond memory that demonstrates how people thought of him, I think. But then, I’m sentimental that way.

10 comments on “Late for his own funeral

  1. Dandelion

    I love this post. And the kindness of organists who do funerals so tenderly.

    The funeral I went to last week had a similar issue with the crematorium booking. Because the funeral over-ran, we had a bit of a mad-cap dash to get there (it was also quite some way away). They slot people in at rigid half-hour intervals, and when we got there, the next party had already arrived. They rushed us in and out in five minutes flat, we didn’t know what had hit us, it was all so sudden.

    I feel for the hearse driver.

  2. Z

    It’s so important to get it right, as the family and friends are feeling emotionally vulnerable enough. They had 35 minutes for the drive, which would normally take 30 in a car, but of course a funeral procession would normally go slower than that and take 40-45.

  3. Z

    The minister coped splendidly too, which is more important. It’s enough for me not to be noticed – that is, competent, not showy, don’t crash the chords or play more verses than are written!

  4. Z

    Hello and welcome, Girl. Yes, much better than general platitudes; a practical but simple example of what they’ll remember him for – I thought it was lovely.

  5. Paz

    very nicely written….I had never even thought about all the background work an organist must do to get it just so, thanks for the insight, shame about the circumstances.

  6. Z

    Welcome, Paz and thanks for your comment. It was particularly awkward because there was a specific tune I was asked to play as the coffin came in – but the important thing is for the funeral to run smoothly and give comfort to the bereaved. Mine is a small part and noticeable only if I make mistakes.

  7. Z

    One is allowed to be part of a very personal occasion, along with friends of the family. It’s a privilege, if a sad one.


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