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 cort├Ęge 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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Site Meter

I used a site meter from Site Meter when I had the old Blogger blog and have just updated the account to point to this WordPress one instead. I’ve also taken the brave move of resetting the counter to zero.

Darwin Day

It would be a grave omission not to record the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, whose insight into the power of natural selection to effect evolution and speciation did so much to enlighten human beings over the last 150 years. Personally, I have taken a difficult journey into rationalism and humanism, having been very religious as a teenager and young man and absorbed some unhelpful ways of thinking about the world which have taken some shaking off, and are still being discarded as my learning continues.

I can still remember reading some magazine aimed at teenage Christians – Buzz it was called – which repeated some of the usual fallacies about evolution and promoted one of the standard Christian Creationist views of the origins of the universe and life – and believing it because I wanted to believe it, rather than looking rationally at the evidence all around me and deciding for myself.

It must have been around that time that we were taught evolution at school and, little prig that I was, I proudly and emphatically wrote “The Theory of Evolution” in my exercise book. Just goes to show, that with five years of a good public school science education, magical thinking still got in the way of looking critically at the world and drawing rational conclusions.

The whole business of wanting things to be true because you want that version of truth to be true is a powerful driver in human thinking about the world. We are not at all good at cutting through myths and magical thinking to find rational truths, but, for all our sakes, we must evermore do so.

Daisy’s up the duff

I suppose, as an absent father, sooner or later one of your daughters is going to pick up the phone and make that call. This evening, I learned that I am likely to become a grandfather not long after my 47th birthday, rather sooner than I had anticipated.
I’m very proud of Daisy for having the guts to call me and give me the news. It’s not as if her life is really in a good position for sprogging; she’s only 18 and still finishing her college course, living at home and/or with her boyfriend who’s living at home. But, boyfriend and his family are supportive and her mother hasn’t given her too much grief, so at least she can start to come to terms with pregnancy (damn! there’s that word) and start planning for the future without having to deal with over-emotive families. It’s not going to be easy for her and it’s hard to know just how much I can do 500 miles from the action.
To be frank, it’s her life and she’s been wanting to make all the decisions since she was twelve, and decisions and choices have consequences; we’re all wiser after the events of our own choosing. That’s not to say that I don’t adore her or want the best for her or want to be with her and hold her hand and hug her and tell her that’s she’s the world to me and always has been, it just means that no parent can live their lives vicariously through their children and expect them to make the choices they would have made with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight; life just isn’t like that.
After all, there are worse mistakes to make when you’re eighteen than falling pregnant, and that in itself isn’t a disaster. Honest.
More rational observation, comment and news will doubtless follow.

A community funeral

Last Friday was Janet’s funeral; she died at the age of 49 of cancer. Although she lived only a few houses away, I’d never got to know her well, although I’d spoken to her on a few occasions at village dos, particularly admiring her photographs of the area, landscapes further away and Scottish flora and fauna.
Janet was a staunchly independent woman. A marine biologist by profession and a photographer by passion, she never gave up on life; even in her last week she’d ordered a new sofa for the house.
She’d planned her whole funeral, which was to be a humanist affair, but she fell out with the humanists after she insisted on having All things bright and beautiful sung at the funeral. A friend from the village stepped into the breach and the village hall was commandeered for the event.
It was her instruction, amongst many for the funeral, that bright colours and daffodils should be worn. Typical of Argyll funerals, the event was planned for lunchtime so that people could get away from work to attend. The hall was packed with people and the window cills were packed with jars of daffodils – their musk hung heavy in the hall throughout the funeral.
Janet had chosen a willow coffin, which was great to see, but the unintended consequence was that, with the light behind it, she was herself present in silhouette, something which some people found strangely comforting.
Instead of any formal religious service, the funeral was a succession of music of Janet’s choosing interspersed with readings and words from her family and friends.
Tears were shed, we shared moments of quiet contemplation listening to music and, at the last, she left alone in the company of the undertakers for her final journey. As she did so, we sang together and kept her family in the midst of the living.

Notes on origins

Time with my mother is a rare treat these days, and much of it is spent trying to find out some of her family history the better to inform my understanding of my (adoptive) family. My origins are rather weird – the more so since I am adopted – but unusual even without that fleeting fact.
My father was born in India in 1927 whilst my grandfather was working there doing great things for the emerging science of public health medicine. My mother was born in Antigua of Huguenot stock who had been engaged in the sugar industry there for over three hundred years. I suppose this makes me effectively a second-generation immigrant and, since I am white and blond, I’ve been dying for some scumbag from the BNP to knock on my door and explain the rational behind voluntary repatriation of such as myself … unfortunately, I don’t think they do much canvassing in the Scottish Highlands.
These days, most families have got members who are the family historians or the keepers-of-pedigrees, so original family history research may not be needed if one asks around enough. Mum has pedigrees for her Henzell ancestors (the Huguenots) and Sedgwicks (from Dent in North Yorkshire) and I managed to persuade her to let me borrow them to copy for my/my kids information. There is also a lot of detail on my father’s family, one branch of which (the Owens) has been traced back to 1625. That means a total of 14 generations between the earliest known ancestors and my own children – pretty fantastic when it’s all charted out.
As a consequence of this information, I spent most of the weekend assembling the data into a family tree application and now have over 400 people in various branches, and there are other lines that I know have pedigrees that can be added, particularly on my children’s mother’s side (the former Mrs PtC). Must see if I can borrow them some time.
Because my parents were not really great ones for maintaining relationships with diverse and several branches of their families, I grew up as a child thinking that we had very few relations, in contrast to all my fellows who could reel off long lists of aunts, uncles, cousins and even more remote kin. It’s a bit of a surprise to see just how many extant folk there are perched on the various branches of the family tree, even if I know few of them from Adam/Eve and, no doubt, vice versa.
I’ve added a few “family” tags to my del.icio.us bookmarks, but, to maintain the fiction of anonymity which is the theme of this blog, nothing that links directly to my own family name – you’ll just have to keep guessing if you don’t know already.
To come back to the introduction to this post, Mum gave me a few tales which are worth re-telling and I shall do so in due course here, with appropriate edits of identities.

Religious law

We do not, in the United Kingdom, live in a “Christian country”, but in a secular country with, in England, an established church and, in Scotland, a church with constitutional rights. It is a paradox, but a necessary truth, that social goods are not delivered by religious law. Religious law (and, by inference, its penalties) are effective where compliance comes from the spirit and the heart. Societies at large are irreligious and the imposition of religious principle becomes, at best, cruelty and, at worst, tyranny. We do not need to look as far as the middle east and outside Christianity to see the obvious truth. Take, for example, unreformed Catholic Ireland where civil divorce could not be established for many years because of the extra-constitutional sway of the bishopric. People in failed and irreconcilable marriages were unable to gain some relief in law and obtain divorce, to the cruelty and oppression of many, and not just women.
We see a similar situation with the Vatican’s struggle to find a position on the use of contraceptives, searching out loopholes in the sayings of this celibate Pope and that.
The church is for the cure of souls – and adherent ones at that. Civil societies are comprised of imperfect, difficult, troubled and mostly irreligious folk and need civil remedies for social ills. The cause of public health has suffered greatly because of the celibate church’s position on procreation. What the churches tend to forget is that Christ said, “I come not to call the righteous, but sinners, to salvation”. He as said that unto Caesar should be rendered the things that were Caesar’s, that the Kingdoms of Heaven and of earth are different and separate.
The only rule is that we love our neighbours and, if we find ways to remove disease, hardship and oppression from their lives, these would be the fruits of the perfect Spirit in an imperfect world.