Funerals occupy a large part of my time. I hear stories of remarkable people and share in the grief of the families for the person who has died. In terms of my own feelings, I am like a batsman lining up to fast emotional deliveries. However well prepared I am there will always be one person, against whom I have no defense. 11-year-old Syira was one such person. The analogy belongs to Franklin, who was the undertaker and whose heart was broken alongside mine in what was to happen.
Syira’s vivacious and wonderful mother, Chiney, had been the victim of a fatal asthma attack and Syira herself died of an asthma attack the morning after her mother’s funeral. At Chiney’s funeral I had asked people to hug those nearest to them so that their grief would be shared together and not held individually. The church was packed with 400 people squeezed into every corner. As people held each other and their tears tumbled this beautiful woman-child came towards me and asked me if I wanted a hug. She was not looking for reassurance but had seen me on my own and wanted to include me in what was happening. It was she looking after me and not I after her.
At the crematorium I told people the story of what Syira had done and held her gaze from the front of the chapel. I said that I would remember what she had done for the rest of my life and I asked her if she was ready for me to say the final prayer of committal which would mean the curtains closing. She nodded for me to continue but she was in hospital and died the next morning.
I have learnt that children can teach adults about death. In the immediate days that followed Syira’s death adults splurged out their feelings on Facebook. At her funeral the children from her school had come and were lined up dignified and erect thinking about Syira rather than just focussing on their own feelings as so many adults were doing. It was the children who were facing up to the reality of what had happened. Her classmates asked me whether I was “the priest that she hugged?” One of the children said that I had done Syira proud. It was as Syira had done; they were comforting me as much as I was them.
I have learnt that while things don’t always happen for a purpose God brings a purpose out of everything that happens. God doesn’t stop tragedies from happening in the here and now, but he does promise that in time he will make all things new. I take comfort from the fact that Syira will be a part of the new heaven and the new earth where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away (Revelation 21:4 &5).
Funerals continue to occupy a large part of my time. We already have first generation secularism when families are one step removed from the church: their parents would go to church but them not. These families like to have Frank Sinatra (I did it my Way) or Robbie Williams (Angels) playing as the coffin comes in. We now have a second-generation secularism when families are two steps removed from the church: their grandparents went to church but neither they nor their parents have done so. The family of a lady who had died in her forties were one such family. They brought music decks into the church and played loud hip-hop music. We all danced together and for five minutes the church became akin to a club. When I stopped dancing, mindful of the fact that we needed to reach the crematorium in time, one person from the congregation noticed that I had stopped and politely asked me if I had anything else that I wanted to say.
I live with the memory of the warmth of Chiney’s family who adopted me as their own; the dignity of Syira’s school friends as they quivered at the enormity of what had happened; the gravitas of Franklin as he steered us through both Chiney and Syira’s funerals. There is a French phrase ‘coup de foudre’ which means a flash of lightening. It is used to refer to a moment when a person captures your heart in an instant. Some people live their whole lives without such a sensation. Syira was a coup de foudre for me; that elegant woman child captured my heart in the single moment she walked towards me at her mother’s funeral and asked me if I wanted a hug.