My first experience of taking a funeral in ‘lockdown’ was in July. It was a graveside service with only twenty mourners allowed. The deceased was my 100-year-old ‘Uncle John ‘. He had wanted a ‘proper’ church service for which he had chosen three hymns – together with a further hymn for the committal. But when he died no church service and no hymn-singing were possible; just twenty minutes around the grave.
Recognising the vagaries of the British weather, I knew that even in the height of summer rain was possible. If the heavens were to open, then only the committal would need to be very brief -with no tributes and no sermon. So, with the agreement of my uncle’s two daughters (my cousins) I decided to plan for the worst and create what became effectively an expanded ‘souvenir programme’ rather than a normal two page ‘order of service’. On the front of the cover was a colour photo of my Uncle John – dressed for a wedding and sporting a white bowtie! Inside the scriptures (Psalm 23, and selections from John 14 and 1 Cor 15) were printed out in full. So too my cousin’s tributes together with a potted ‘life’ of my uncle. Although no singing was allowed, the hymn ‘Jerusalem the golden’ was reproduced – ‘For reflection’.
In the event, the sun shone on us and my uncle’s funeral proved one of the happiest I had ever taken. But the great bonus of planning for the worst was that my cousins had a souvenir-programme to send out to all the wider family and friends who could not be with us.
My second experience of taking a funeral in ‘lockdown’ was in October and was quite different. The funeral took place in the local crematorium chapel – again with just twenty people. I had known the deceased for many years, for Neville had been a member of my church in Chelmsford. The family were all gifted musicians: Neville had been a talented organist, his wife is a piano teacher, and his son is a concert pianist. The widow and the son therefore wanted music to play a key role to play. So after the tributes we listened to a section of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto, while after the benediction we listened to Widor’s Toccata. Although congregational hymn-singing was still forbidden, there still had to be hymns. So ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’ was sung by Wells Cathedral Choir, and ‘Thine be the glory’ (with a magnificent descant) was sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
Again, I proposed an expanded ‘souvenir programme’ rather than a short order of service. On this occasion photos abounded. Both the hymns were printed out – and to my surprise I found that following the words in the ‘programme’ as we listened to these two great choirs was for us all a really uplifting spiritual experience.
This time, not just the Scriptures and the tributes were printed out in full, but – at the request of the family – also the sermon. I was initially hesitant about having the sermon for all to see, for I thought people’s attention would wander – as it was they all remained focussed (perhaps it helped that I didn’t stick woodenly to the script?).
The family were very appreciative of the ‘souvenir programme’ – not least because they had a memento for themselves and also something meaningful to send out to the many family and friends who could not be with us. With hindsight, if I were to take another funeral in this time of Covid, I would include the prayers (none of which, it so happened were extempore, but rather carefully crafted for the occasion).
Yes, in a time of Covid an expanded ‘souvenir programme’ makes all the difference in the world. Maybe when we get back to ‘the new normal’ we might still have souvenir programmes – who knows?