A military funeral

What follows is the text of an email I sent to Canadian relations after Jason’s funeral on 4th June.

Attended Jason’s funeral on Thursday in a beautiful Cotswold village under a glorious summer sky. The whole village turned out to watch the procession go past, including the local primary school. The local BBC news crew were also in attendance, although I haven’t found a clip on the BBC news website, so it might just have been shown locally in Oxfordshire.
This was a full military production (and I use the word advisedly and with no disrespect to family and friends). The forces take care to give considerable honour and respect to those of their number who fall in conflict and this was no exception. A number of marines in uniform were in the pub before the procession, including those who knew Jason and those who did not. We walked as a large family group behind the hearse through the streets of Bampton in a strange silence; the police had closed the roads and the locals came out to pay their respects. The only sound was the tolling of the church bell, two tolls and a pause, two tolls and a pause … As we approached the green in front of the church, the men of the local Royal British Legion who lined the lane lowered the various standards they were carrying in respect. To our right were drawn up in ranks about 40 marines in dress uniform, all facing away from the coffin and with heads bowed. The bearer party of marines, with bare heads, took possession of the flag-draped coffin and proceeded along the path through the churchyard, which was again lined by the honour party with rifles sloped and heads bowed. We processed into the church through the west door and found that it was already three-parts full. I ended up sitting next to Caroline (about the only person I knew) and it took an age for everyone else to come in. The usher was a marine nco who was extremely efficient in filling up nooks and crannies with people. One poor group of young women, obviously hoping to find a space somewhere at the back, had to come right down the packed nave, squeeze past the coffin on its bier, up through the choir and into the chancel where some more choirstalls were empty. The choirstalls beside Jason’s coffin were filled with his comrades and the south apse was filled with the remaining marines. A number of other marines in wheelchairs and on crutches were also present. A standard bearer from the RBL stood at attention at the head of the coffin throughout the hour-long service with the marine standard. Jason’s dress hat and gloves were on the flagged coffin.
The parish church in Bampton is a beautiful Cotswold stone building with an eclectic range of styles and successive campaigns of building. The west doors were open and the light gave a very serene feeling to the whole place. There must have been around 500 people packed in to the place. Peter was at the organ and did a sterling job.
The service went as funerals will. Great solemnity and enormous stretches of silence between the ritual. Richard (Jason’s older brother) gave the tribute and I was surprised to hear just how strong a southern African accent he had – I shouldn’t have been, but I was.
There were several enormously poignant moments in the service. When Jason’s medals were presented to his family. When Richard spoke of the friendship and innocence of young brothers playing at home on the farm. When we sang the hymns “For those in peril on the sea” and “I vow to thee my country”. When, at last, at the end of the service and after a long silence when we stood in contemplation, the marine bugler played the last post from outside the west door and behind us, letting his perfect notes echo and resound through the building. When, after another silence, the shots of the salute cracked out three times. The sense of military business returned when the bearer party came back in to retrieve the coffin at the quick march (they left at slow). And so we emerged again into this beautiful English, Cotswold summer day with nary a cloud in the sky to see the cortège depart for the cremation.
I didn’t follow on to the cremation. I had to make my way to Suffolk and find somewhere to get some food – the diabetic’s great excuse.
A strange and powerful day. The phrase that came to mind was the “theatre of war” – this military production with its well-rehearsed cast; its dramas and players, the music and sound and fury. But what a company! I watched these young men in the pub beforehand and they had a quiet, confident camaraderie that I’ve seldom seen. Even though many of them hadn’t met, they knew and recognised one another and were at ease in their shared identity and common purpose. We may sometimes dislike the task that they are given, but they are worthy of our respect and gratitude for they way they accept their duty and, often, pay the price.

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