Two years ago today I took my mother’s funeral service at Brighton’s Woodvale Crematorium. We were in the middle of the pandemic. Singing of hymns was prohibited. Instead we had to listen to recordings of hymns. Afterwards there was no gathering of the family – hugging was not allowed – we simply greeted one another and then went our separate ways. It was an appalling experience. It was a rite of passage and yet it was not a rite of passage. I felt I was not allowed to grieve. Hence my anger with Boris Johnson and his chums who apparently felt free to meet up with one another for drinks and more. We did our bit – he along with his staff and his cabinet did not. I sometimes wonder whether this lack of a proper rite of passage subsequently impacted my mental health. Whatever, on this the second anniversary of my mother’s funeral I would like to honour my mother by reproducing my address.
My funeral address
The other day when I visited my 92-year-old mother we talked about one of the hymns she would like to be sung at her funeral. It’s a hymn by Fanny Crosby (1820-1915) a blind American Methodist poet, who wrote some 8000 (yes, eight thousand!) hymns and songs. Most of these songs have long been forgotten – but not all. ‘Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine’ was written by Fanny Crosby; so also, ‘To God be the glory great things he has done’; and, so too my mother’s funeral hymn, ‘Some day the silver cord will break’. The hymn is found in no modern hymnbook: like many other songs she wrote, it is no doubt dismissed as ‘mawkish or too sentimental’. Yet, as my mother began to sing the lines, I found it profoundly moving. The hymn reads as follows:-
Some day the silver cord will break,
And I no more as now shall sing;
But, O the joy when I shall wake
Within the presence of the King!
And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story, saved by grace:
And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story, saved by grace.
Some day my earthly house will fall,
I cannot tell how soon ‘twill be,
But this I know – my All in all
Has now a place with Him for me.
Or some day when my Lord will come,
And called to meet Him I’ll be blest,
He then will say to me, “Well done,”
And I shall enter into rest.
Some day, till then I’ll watch and wait,
My lamp all trimmed and burning bright,
That when my Saviour I will greet,
My faith will then be changed to sight.
It is all the more moving when we realise that this hymn was written by a woman who was blind almost from birth. Although it is only within the last two or three years of her life that my mother began to lose her sight, nonetheless this hymn resonated strongly with her. For it looks forward to the day when, in the words of the chorus, we “shall see Him face to face”. Or as the last two lines of the final verse declare, on that day “when my Saviour I will greet, my faith will then be changed to sight”. I am told that Fanny Crosby once said: “When I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Saviour”.
Every verse of the hymn is full of Biblical allusions. The allusion which interested me in particular is found in the first line: “Some day the silver chord will break”. This is a quotation from Ecclesiastes 12, where the Preacher declares: “Remember your creator in the days of your youth… before the silver cord is snapped” (Eccl 12. 1,6 NRSV). The opening verses of Ecclesiastes 12 are exceedingly gloomy, for they are about the sadness of old age and the inevitability of death. The NRSV version of the passage is difficult to understand. Thankfully the GNB gives a much clearer translation of the allegory which is present here in Ecclesiastes 12:
Remember your Creator while you are still young, before those dismal days and years come when you will say ‘I don’t enjoy life’. …. Then your arms, that have protected you, will tremble, and your legs, now strong, will grow weak. Your teeth will be too few to chew your good, and your eyes too dim to see clearly. Your ears will be deaf to the noise of the street…. Your hair will turn white; you will hardly be able to drag yourself along, and all desire will have gone”. Old age can indeed be cruel! This is the context in which the Preacher declares: then ‘the silver chain will snap, and the golden lamp will fall and break; the rope at the well will break, and the water jar be shattered. (Eccl 12.6).
Even so, the precise meaning of these metaphors for death is unclear. The scholarly consensus is that the Preacher begins by referring to a golden light bowl strung up by a silver chord. According to Derek Kidner, the pictures “capture the beauty and fragility of the human frame”. Here there is no hope of life beyond the grave. Death is the end: as the Lord said to Adam and Eve after the Fall, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3.19; see Eccl 12.7). The theme is ‘memento mori’ – remember that we will all die! To be fair, the Preacher is not revelling in the thought of old age and death; instead he is encouraging his readers to make the most of life – ‘carpe diem’ (seize the day)!
Thank God that we who read these words today live on the other side of the resurrection of Jesus. The message of the Preacher to ‘remember that we will all die’ is transformed into a new key in the New Testament: ‘remember that we will all live’! In the stirring words of the Apostle Paul, set to wonderful music by Handel in The Messiah: “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible” (1 Cor 15.51,52).
It is precisely because there is hope, that with Fanny Crosby we can sing not just of the silver cord breaking, but of the waking within the presence of the King. Or in the words of the chorus: “And I shall see Him face to face, and tell the story, saved by grace”.