Meaning in metaphor

Charles 7 Comments

We are driving to the crematorium for the committal. It’s late afternoon. A shower of rain is clearing as we breast a rise in the road and there in front of us is a rainbow. ‘Look!’

It’s a sign. It’s common at funerals for people to see a sign.  Call it superstitious, call it what you like. I remember an afternoon of flood-strength rain one autumn. The roof was leaking, the sky was baleful and nature felt out of kilter. Part way through the funeral a butterfly unaccountably flew up from the floor by the catafalque. There was more meaning in that than in all the fine words we uttered. 

What signs have you encountered at funerals? What thoughts do you have about this? 


  1. Charles

    I find those moments often involve the sudden appearance of sunlight.

    A while ago, I took a funeral for a man who had lost his way in the world, and was pretty much universally disliked. He hadn’t always been like this, it may have been the result of a very slowly developing dementia. Anyway, the funeral said what it needed to say to the six people who attended, and then I read this poem. As I took a big in-breath, the sun broke through the window and flooded the front of the room:

    When I come to the end of my journey
    And I travel my last weary mile,
    Just forget if you can, that I ever frowned
    And remember only the smile.

    Forget unkind words I have spoken;
    Remember some good I have done.
    Forget that I ever had heartache
    And remember I’ve had loads of fun.

    Forget that I’ve stumbled and blundered
    And sometimes fell by the way.
    Remember I have fought some hard battles
    And won, ere the close of the day.

    Then forget to grieve for my going,
    I would not have you sad for a day,
    But in summer just gather some flowers
    And remember the place where I lay,

    And come in the shade of evening
    When the sun paints the sky in the west.
    Stand a few moments beside me
    And try to remember my best.

    (Lyman Hancock)

    and as I finished, the sun disappeared. Call it serendipity if you like, but it was wonderfully affecting for everyone there, including myself, and like a final blessing.

    1. Charles

      Can share the ‘sun’ thing. Sunshine is always a blessing in these lands, of course. But a little watery revelation of it came as a particular delight in the middle of my father’s funeral in an old church on a cold and foggy November day.

  2. Charles

    Since biblical times ( and for all I know pre biblical times) the rainbow has been a sign of hope.

    I took a funeral for a man whose daughter had travelled up from Exeter for the occasion. He asked for this reading at his funeral:

    Time for me to go now, I won’t say goodbye;
    Look for me in rainbows, way up in the sky.
    In the morning sunrise when all the world is new,
    Just look for me and love me, as you know I loved you.

    Time for me to leave you, I won’t say goodbye;
    Look for me in rainbows, high up in the sky.
    In the evening sunset, when all the world is through,
    Just look for me and love me, and I’ll be close to you.

    It won’t be forever, the day will come and then
    My loving arms will hold you, when we meet again.

    Time for us to part now, we won’t say goodbye;
    Look for me in rainbows, shining in the sky.
    Every waking moment, and all your whole life through
    Just look for me and love me, as you know I loved you.

    Just wish me to be near you,
    And I’ll be there with you.

    Music and lyrics: Conn Bernard (1990). Vicki Brown

    As it happened I was going TO Exeter later that afternoon for a weekend with friends. After looking all round the marvellous cathedral we walked out and saw a double rainbow, I emailed his daughter the photo and she was thrilled and had seen the same rainbows as she drove home. Serendipity? Who knows? Who cares? It meant the world to her.

    A second one also involved a rainbow – the funeral was for a young woman who loved bows and had them on everything, shoes, clothes, bags, hair clips… everyone came to the funeral wearing a bow of some sort. It was a miserable, drizzly, wet, damp day as we went into the chapel. Everyone was incredibly sad, we left to more rain. After the obligatory ‘looking at flowers’ in the chapel cloister all the guests had left, except for her parents and sister, when there appeared a gap in the clouds, bright blue sky between the tall trees and a rainbow arcing the gap between. It was magical. The family took it as a sign from her that she was happy with her goodbye ceremony and was truly free and at peace….

  3. Charles

    With us it was butterflies and ladybirds that took on a particular significance for a family we worked with. It was the death of a young man and the arrangements were carried out by his grandmother. Since his death she had started to see (notice?) butterflies and ladybirds and finally,during the funeral itself, a ladybird landed on the wall next to her. It had a huge effect on her. We later arranged for a cremated remains casket to be made for her covered in ladybirds and butterflies. It forms the focal point of a sort of shrine in her front room and it has made a huge difference to her.

    So what is going on? Are these things purely coincidence or is there a greater meaning? I don’t have an answer but I genuinely don’t think it matters. The effect that these events have is real whatever their origin and even if we make the meaning ourselves, then that meaning is just as real.

  4. Charles

    Jenny’s conclusion seems spot on to me. We need to make meanings all the time; we have to cast the net of our meanings over the randomness of the universe, or life would be unbearable. The effect is all, the meaning supplies its own coherence.In our culture, a scientific/rational explanation can powerfully strengthen the force of such meanings, but it is not essential. Metaphor is not rational, in the purest sense, is it?

    “Oh, as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means
    Time held me green and dying
    Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

    (Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill.”)

    The ladybird was a coincidence, the ladybird was “sent,” it doesn’t matter. The meaning was all.

  5. Charles

    How wonderful all your comments are!
    My experiences are as follows:
    (1) the funeral of my nephew-in-law aged not quite 13. Afterwards, we saw a double rainbow. It made us think that perhaps he was in heaven with my daughter who died aged 6 weeks.
    (2) the funeral of a lovely friend of ours on 31/10/2016 which was a beautiful autumn day and there was a “plague” of ladybirds – our wonderful friend Glynis loved ladybirds! Moreover, there was a “plague” of ladybirds the year my daughter died – and my eldest son, then aged 2, loved them!
    I don’t care if these are real or imagined signs – they bring joy to the memories of those we have loved, and still love.

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