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Say it in The Living Years!

‘The Eulogy’, or as some call it ‘The Tribute’, is perhaps the central part of most funeral services. An opportunity to talk about the deceased and honour their lives, identify their achievements and recognise how they have graced and blessed the lives of the many with whom they spent their years.

I wonder though, whether the words spoken during this part of the service, either by or on behalf of the family, would come as a surprise to the person that they are talking about. Have we told them what we feel about them in their living years?

Within a eulogy, recounting some of the factual aspects of an individual’s life – perhaps their early years or their distinguished career can often be spoken with clarity and no quiver in the voice. However, once we start to talk about deeply treasured memories that we shared or express our emotions as to how we felt about the person, real emotion can quickly kick in and anything from a few pauses and some spluttering words through to outright sobbing, and every conceivable emotion in between can ensue.

Yet how often do these beautiful words and feelings ever get expressed to a loved one before they die? Are we good at articulating our love and appreciation of people face to face? Not just a few flowery phrases written on a birthday card or Mother’s Day / Father’s Day card that has been picked up because the picture looks mildly better than the one you just put back as you say to yourself ‘That’ll do’… Surely in an ideal world, the words of a eulogy will be those that have already been declared to the loved family member or friend frequently, prior to their death.

When we take the time to do this and speak out telling family and friends how they have enriched our lives and how thankful we are to have spent time with them the outcome can be memorable for the rest of our life. Let me share an experience that I have had.

Introduction to church life for me came at the age of 15. Riding my bike one evening through a local park there were some lads playing football. I discovered that they were a local church team and although I was just too old to play in the team I was welcome to join in that evening. Afterwards I went with the team manager – himself only a couple of years older than me to the local pub where I was introduced to some of the other church youth group. An unorthodox introduction to church life – but hey would you expect anything different of me?

As the weeks turned to months turned to years, I benefitted from being a part of a fantastic youth group. We shared some great memories together and then I was offered the opportunity to be a young youth leader within that church. I look back with huge fondness to these times, the friends I grew up with and the youth leaders who invested in me and then allowed me the opening to take my first steps in youth ministry.

During these years we had many local young people come through the different youth groups that the church provided. One of these young people was called Simon. Simon was the son of the church minister, not overly sporty but a lad who I got on well with and was good to have in the group.

I remember the evening that he made his decision to ‘become a Christian’ a guy called Duncan Banks had spoken at an event that evening and Simon was moved to make his peace with God that evening and become a follower of Jesus. He and I then met up for an hour or so each week for the next few months as he started his journey of faith.

Another memory I have of Simon was when he played the male lead role in a Pantomime that we put on at the church one year. Cinderella played for one night only but happy memories, spoonerisms from James who played Buttons accidentally fluffing his lines ‘who so ever shits this foo’, instead of ‘fits this shoe’, scenery that we had painted, the church full and the applause at the end of a great night.

Teenage years were not a breeze though for Simon. His mother was diagnosed with cancer and whilst she continues to make recovery, this cruel disease left its impact and it is probably only now that I am able to reflect on how hard that must have been for Simon and all his family at that time.

I moved on from this church to become full time Youth Minister in another church the other side of town. Subsequently, I didn’t see too much of Simon through his A level years and those following as he went on to further study. So fast forward maybe 10 years. I was in a really dark time and place. Adultery had seen my marriage fail, my job was lost, my home was with friends who had taken me into their family for a couple of months. It was during this, doubtless lowest time of my life that an email pings up on my computer out of the blue.

Simon had emailed me. I had heard that he had been diagnosed himself with cancer but he explained in his email that it was terminal and would I be willing to meet up with him for lunch? Would I???? Immediately, I replied and a date was set for the following week.

Within a few days I drove north and met with Simon for the first time in quite a few years. After a quick catch up with him and his wife, he and I went to a local restaurant and spoke over a meal.

It was during this meal that he said something to me that will remain with me for the rest of my life. I asked him that as he was living with terminal cancer were there things that he had listed to do and achieve before he passed away. The phrase ‘bucket list’ was not one that I was familiar with back then but that’s exactly what I meant. He said ‘yes’ he had and that there were two things he particularly wanted to do whilst he was still alive. Curious to know I asked what these were. One was to return to Berwick Upon Tweed and see again the Puffins that he recalled from family holidays as a boy. ‘And what is the other?’ I enquired – He said that his other wish was to meet up with me again……. BOOM! My eyes filled with tears……. He continued, ‘you see I had a great relationship with my parents and my family as I grew up, but outside of my family you had the biggest influence in my life and I wanted to meet up again and say thank you.’

I have never been able to tell this story without the tears coming and getting choked and now I discover that I cannot type the story without the same thing happening.

An overwhelming feeling of unmerited favour, God’s grace, his compassion and mercy filled me and continues to whenever I recall this day. In my darkest season of my life, here I was reconnecting with someone honouring me for my input into his life. I remain genuinely humbled – thank you Simon, thank you God!

Saying goodbye was a strange experience, knowing that it was highly likely that I wouldn’t be meeting up with him again, we hugged, and I drove away my eyes laden with tears.

Simon passed away just a few weeks later. I deeply regret that I didn’t go to his funeral. The truth is I bottled it. My shame and guilt from my own failings and circumstances convinced me that I wouldn’t be welcome or at best, I should stay away to avoid embarrassment for others. But that afternoon I spent with him, talking and hearing him as he prayed a blessing over me is one of the most special memories of my life so far. I am deeply honoured that I had that opportunity to hear how he felt I had played an important role in his life.

Now what about us? Are there people who have shaped and impacted your life in such a way as to prompt you to arrange a face to face conversation and in turn honour and pay tribute to them? Are there words that you need to speak into the lives of loved ones before they pass away? Words of thanks, blessings to declare over and into people’s lives? If ever there comes a time when we stand to deliver the eulogy to someone important in our lives, I pray that what you say would in no way come a surprise to the person who’s life you are celebrating.

And yes there is a huge note to self here but maybe for you also…

Love to know your thoughts………….

God bless you x

Funeral Music – I’m Coming Up So You Better Get The Party Started!!!

Creating the right funeral service is a hugely important process.

However, this is often something that has to be arranged within just a few days, by people who are usually at their most emotionally raw, the challenge to capture their loved ones whole life and reflect that into what is generally a brief 20 minute service.

Perhaps most interesting is that we all know that one day a service will be held for us, hopefully not for some many years yet, and that it will be a ‘Celebration of our life’ but rarely, very rarely do we ever hold a discussion as to how we would like our service to be.

Thankfully, most services are lovingly and compassionately created, with music, words and poems used that honour the individual and pays tribute to a life well lived.

But not always….

Music features in almost every funeral service but the choices that people make sometimes beggar belief.

I never have, nor do I imagine I ever would say to a family that if they chose a particular piece that I would refuse to lead the service – but I know a minister who has. The song that he refuses in one of his services is perhaps THE song that I dislike the most to have played at a funeral. The song being ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon…. A few times I have proceeded into a chapel with a grieving family following behind and as we get a third of the way down the aisle ‘imagine there’s no heaven’ resounds around the chapel and inwardly I scream ‘NOOOOO!!!’

I tell families often that music is very emotive and remains with us, reminding us of situations and places. I tell them that what music they choose, when they hear it again will remind them of the funeral – this can be a good thing but can generate emotional reminders when you least expect.

I recall many many years ago that one of the first funerals I ever led was that of a close friend’s girlfriend who passed away just 21 years old. Included in the service was a song from a Disney film ‘Little Mermaid’. It was a few years later that when I took my son to a little girls birthday party, that as we started to set up the party tea and the children were calming down watching a DVD that I heard the music from Little Mermaid play again. Imagine my surprise and initial confusion when I found myself filling up with tears, defaulting back to the funeral service and emotions caught up with the death of that young lady.

So music ought to be chosen with great care.

Somewhere over the rainbow is a lovely song. Whether you like the original Judy Garland version or Eva Cassidy, perhaps even Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, this song is on the frequent play list at most crematoriums throughout the country. Now, I am pretty sure that this is an urban myth story but the idea of it actually happening makes me smile (so long as not on my watch) – that having placed the Wizard of Oz soundtrack into the CD machine, instead of getting Judy Garland’s ‘Somewhere Over the rainbow, way up high….’ the chapel was filled with the sound of ‘Ding Dong the witch is dead’. Admit it, your smiling!

Often people ask me ‘what are the most frequent songs played in the chapel?’ Well some of these will come as no surprise to many.
1 My Way – Frank Sinatra.
2 Time to say goodbye – Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman
3 Unforgettable – Nat King Cole
4 We’ll Meet Again – Vera Lynn

However songs that you may not expect that people have chosen in services that I have led include
1 The Birdy Song – In fact I had this twice within a couple of weeks and on neither occasion did it make sense to me as to why it was chosen. Watching a couple of elderly grandmother types doing the actions inside the crematorium chapel was somewhat surreal.
2 ‘I’m a lumberjack and I’m Ok’ chosen to be played during a time of reflection where we can individually remember some of the times we have spent in the company of the individual.
3 YMCA to enter the chapel to is another unorthodox choice. Perhaps more so when it is for an elderly grandfather who passed away well into his 80’s. No the bearers did not do the actions as they carried him on their shoulders down the aisle to the catafalque.
4 ‘Ladies and gentleman, there is no rush from this chapel, but as we gather our thoughts and prepare to take our leave through these doors here on your right that lead us out to the floral terrace, we shall be accompanied by one last piece of music…. This is the Ma Na me Na song from The Muppets.’ – Why oh why oh why oh why????? I simply do not know why but that is how I concluded one service.

Then there are the more comedic songs that have obvious relevance. Dependent upon the career of the deceased then songs like ‘My old mans a dustman’, ‘Ernie and he drove the fastest milk cart in the west’, or ‘Now I’ve got a brand new combined harvester’ – you understand why they have been chosen and can certainly lift the mood within the service.

Eric Idol’s song ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ is popular and is used often to conclude a service with families adopting to both leave with a smile and perhaps also use the sentiment of the song as a manifesto for modern living.

Comedy songs though have to be used in my opinion very carefully. Julia and I have traded comment and song ideas for each other’s life celebration. Julia says that ‘I’m coming up so you better get the party started’ by Pink seems ideal for her. We smile and laugh at the image but I know that in reality, when inside that chapel that song is not what I want played as I celebrate my wife’s life.

I still cringe when I recall this musical selection. A couple had obviously had an evening discussing what music they might choose for one another’s funeral should the need arise. I can only imagine that they may have laughed with hysterics over a few drinks at various alternatives. To this day I doubt that the husband was totally serious. Sadly, the gentleman passed away in the departure lounge of Luton Airport en route to a holiday in the Dominican Republic. The wife, a lovely lady, totally distraught at the loss of her soul mate felt somewhat obliged to go with his song request. I cautioned her that inside the chapel, the emotion of the day that this song might not be the best way for her to leave the chapel. She understood what I was saying but elected to still go with this song. The chapel was full on that day. A large family and perhaps the tragic circumstances of his death created a large congregation. After a really moving service, with the family openly emotional and after I had closed the curtains, I had to introduce the piece that we were about to exit to. ‘I pray God’s blessing will be with you and your families this and every day…. We will now leave the chapel to Another One Bites The Dust by Queen’… The familiar bass line introduction kicks in as I leave the lectern, bow to the curtains and slowly walk to the door ready to shake hands, inwardly reeling from what we were listening to.

So, choose wisely the music to represent and celebrate a loved one’s life. There are many wonderful and amazing songs. Right now Ellie Goulding’s beautiful track ‘How long will I love you’ is right up there in my idea of perfect choices. Matt Redman’s ‘Endless Hallelujah’ is another. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vny6oFHw1Sw&feature=kp )

I pray that these musical decisions will not need to be played out in your families anytime soon, but when the time comes it is important that we say farewell with words of love and dignity.

Ahhh Dignity by Deacon Blue…. Now that is a tune!