A C of E funeral

Charles 3 Comments



To Salisbury and the funeral of the mother of two friends.

The venue is the cathedral, no less. We get there in good time, but not good enough: the place is almost full and we forage for a seat at the back.

Who’s the celeb who died, you ask. No one you’ve heard of. Andrea was the wife of a Wiltshire vicar who touched the hearts of everyone she met. Her achievement was that she was a first-rate human being. All these people testify to that, having got themselves here at, doubtless, some inconvenience.

The service is billed as one of gratitude and thanksgiving. It’s the full and formal Anglican rite. As we wait for it to begin we contemplate the poem by RS Thomas in the service booklet, The Other. It begins:

There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl

And concludes:

And the
thought comes
of that other being who is
awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.

There’s a procession comprising all manner of appropriately attired officiants, and the Bishop of Ramsbury bringing up the rear. It’s a proper procession. The nave of the cathedral is 134 metres long and the land-speed record for getting from start to finish is nowhere near lowered on this occasion.

The ritual wraps itself lovingly around Andrea. There’s a bidding prayer which commemorates Andrea’s “love of being a parish priest’s wife who welcomed all who came to the vicarage door” at the same time as proclaiming the faith that “all who believe in [Christ] will rise with him”. I guess there’s a good sprinkling of unbelievers and agnostics present, but it’s by no means alienating. The tone is humane and gentle.

There are good hymns – ‘Angel-voices ever singing’; ‘Brother, sister, let me serve you’; and ‘Tell out my soul’. There are prayers and communion.

A family friend delivers a tribute which deftly balances biography, naming of attributes and affectionate anecdotes. A woman from the Mother’s Union pays tribute to Andrea’s dedication to that organisation. The bishop speaks with admirable concision. His text is George Herbert’s Bitter-Sweet:

Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

There is singing from the choir – Gelineau’s setting of Psalm 23 and Byrd’s Agnus Dei from the Mass for Four Voices – which conjures all the usual adjectives: timeless, ethereal, etc. In a building like this, with the gloaming settling, all the usual adjectives fall short by a distance.

An hour and forty minutes later, it is over: “Andrea, go forth upon your journey … May your portion this day be in peace.”

And the procession makes its way back down the nave which Andrea walked up, years ago, as a young bride.


  1. Charles

    Sounds like a good funeral for a good woman.

    Love William Byrd, who, like Tallis, composed sacred music in such religiously turbulent times.

  2. Charles

    Sounds wonderful. A joy to behold when it’s done well. What it also sounds is appropriate for Andrea, which is surely the key to the success of any ceremony?

    The elements which good secularists will use are naturally based around the religious rites because they work well and have done so for centuries. In the absence of new ritual, the steps for the secular ceremonial dance owes much to our Lord and His servants.

    The bidding prayer becomes acknowledgement of circumstances…done well there is no loss of spirituality – no loss of collective thought. A eulogy/tribute is right and proper and in my view should be part of any good funeral- the achievement of balance of biography, characteristics and anecdotes – and a good ‘conclusion’ written well will lead the gathering naturally to the summit of the ceremony – the farewell/goodbye. Obviously, in a church, you have to physically go somewhere to dispose of the body which gives a sense of purpose and is a processional ritual which prepares you for what is to come – rather like marching does in battle.

    In crematoria the disposal process can almost get lost in the service as there is no natural movement or shift; —-that section can lose some of it’s impact if you’re not careful, especially where the families want the coffin to remain in view, but there are many ways round that if you are any good at what you do.

    And of course, appropriate music, poetry, music, strategically placed and is sprinkled through for those present to breath, take stock, ponder and gaze. The design of buildings is a key element in this.

    Andrea’s ceremony was perfect for Andrea. Thank you for sharing it. May she rest in peace.
    All the rituals are present in any good funeral.

  3. Charles

    This funeral stands apart from so many church-based funerals, not only because it was clearly right for Andrea, but because the attendees were drawn in to the proceedings through the music and the relevance of the words. Whilst retaining the format and ‘essentials’ of the Church of England rite, it also became personal, and clearly moved some, if not all of those present.

    The power of music is, IMHO, absolutely key to this. Loud, rousing hymns such as those chosen, played and sung with gusto in a cathedral setting can hardly fail to stir. To me, this has a far greater emotive effect than any amount of prayer or words.The acoustics of great cathedral buildings can’t fail to do justice to the sixteenth century great composers’ works, nor can they do anything but accentuate lines such as “Loud organs His glory forthtell in great tone”.

    Compare that to Doris murdering Abide With Me for the umpteenth time and still not realising that the three funny ‘b’ things at the start of each line mean she has to use some of the black notes, and thus no-one singing (not that they would anyway, too embarassing), whilst the nice man in the dress who never met Fred who didn’t believe all this crap anyway but there was nowhere else and the undertaker told us we had to use the church, and it’s easy to see why so many funerals fail to play their vital role in the grieving process, and why people have such low expectations of them.

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