I retired at the end of October after working for nearly 10 years as a funeral celebrant. It’s been one of the happiest periods of my working life – but, for lots of reasons, it felt the right time to stop.
My last professional role was a Christmas Memorial service that I’d committed to back in the summer. They are always very special occasions – a gathering of families served over the last year or two by a particular funeral director. Everyone who comes has lost someone and there is comfort in coming together, comfort in remembering.
There’s singing, a few prayers but the heart of the service is when we read out the names of everyone lost and everyone remembered and light candles for them. At Dan and Sarah’s they are arranged in the shape of a cross. Afterwards, in the late afternoon twilight they seem to shine ever more brightly.
I’m always asked to read something and this year – for my farewell – I chose Auld Lang Syne, saying:
There aren’t many poems or songs where you can safely say that, in a room like this, everyone has heard of and, probably, sung along to as well. But my reading today is one of them – it’s the old Scottish song – Auld Lang Syne – that is sung the world over on New Years’ Eve. I bet every one of us here has sung it, with our hearts full and our hands linked with our friends around us.
Strangely enough it doesn’t seem to matter that most of us don’t really know what the old Scottish words – Auld Lang Syne and all the rest – actually mean. Somehow, with the tune and the words together, we understand that the song is all about love and friendship and the need to remember all the times gone by, all those good times past.
That’s why I’ve chosen it for our service. At this special time of year, when the days have grown short and the evenings longer, we find ourselves thinking about times past – the good times and the friendships; the people we’ve loved. At this time of year the one’s we have lost also feel especially close.
I believe it’s important that we do this – because it’s when we take out a book of photos, share some memories, maybe light a candle or raise a glass to absent friends – or come to services like this one today – well, that’s when our loved ones draw close to us again. For me that is what saying or singing Auld Lang Syne is all about. I’m going to read it now. But before I begin can I ask you – if you wish – to take hold of the hand of the person sitting by you and, as I read the words, think about the times gone by, and all that your loved ones mean to you.
Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup! and surely I’ll buy mine! And we’ll take a cup o’kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
We two have run about the slopes, and picked the daisies fine; But we’ve wandered many a weary foot, since those times gone by.
We two have paddled in the stream, from morning sun till dine; But seas between us broad have roared since those times gone by.
And there’s a hand my trusty friend! And give us a hand o’thine! And we’ll drink a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, For auld lang syne. Robert Burns
For me, this time of year always carries the memory of – possibly – my favourite hymn. My only beef? Most church organists seem to take it at a canter when, surely, a more measured pace is needed. This version’s not bad though:
I think we have bad habits now, in museums and galleries, or those vast visiting collections that are puffed off at the Royal Academy or the British Museum. It’s partly the crowds of course, and the pressure to keep moving, but it’s also the sheer numbers of paintings or objects. A literary critic once suggested that you shouldn’t try to read more than four poems a week. I suspect you could apply the same rule to paintings. No more than four in a visit – or is that still too many.
Which all goes to say that I found the the Uffizi marvellously tiring, or tiringly marvellous. I grew especially weary of the endless repetition of religious paintings – all those Madonnas, clutching their – often slightly disturbing – babies.
Which made it all the more exciting when we came across this painting by Antonella da Messina – a Madonna for sure, but somehow less removed or antique, more real; more, I thought, like one of us. Her son too, clambered about in a cheerfully unsymbolic way as babies do, and hugged his mum.
I discovered that da Messina was painting in the 1470s – when all around him were bursting into the gorgeous excesses of the heroic renaissance – and wondered why he wasn’t better known. If you google him, his paintings all have that unfussy but very human directness. They are real people with back stories, bad thoughts and an appraising eye.
Look at these three:
And this thoughtful Virgin Mary:
I even like his crucifixion. Well, Jesus is a little staid, but his thieves are wonderfully acrobatic.
We visited March in the Fens yesterday, hoping to see inside the church there. St Wendreda’s is famous for the angels that decorate its medieval timber roof:
The church is kept locked and a leaflet told us to go to a garage nearby and ask for the key – but we found the system discontinued. Two youths, a while before, had taken the keys and robbed the church – so, sadly this photo is only of what we might have seen.
We did see this on the wall of the modern parish hall next door:
Who knows what those slightly anxious cherubs are up to: it could be a choir practice, or the last trump, or something Pol Pot might have recognised…