18 October 2009


Somebody wants to put into my churchyard (I'm a coward, so of course I'll agree) a gravestone describing the deceased as "Beloved Daughter, Sister, Aunty".

What I dislike is that the Lady concerned was a very considerable person who was the parish's Schoolmistress for decades and touched, for the better, innumerable lives. None of this apparently matters. It's almost enough to make me a screaming feminist. The inscription desired seems to me to mean, translated into plain English,

She was a

Since I'm on about it: I also dislike the modern fad for seeing someone solely in terms of intra-familial relationships and without any reference to their role in the wider community. (One of the best inscriptions in my churchyard is that to Olive Gibbs, because it details her long stint as national Chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and her mayoral service to this city and county.)

And I dislike the absence of any reference to the deep religious commitment of the person concerned, and the lack of any suggestion that we might pray for her or that Jesus might have mercy upon her or that she might rise again.

And I don't care for the hypocoristic Aunty.

I think I must be out of sync with the Zeitgeist.


Sue Sims said...

I'd suggest that there's no need for any hitherto-unknown feminist hackles to rise - the problem is actually rather worse than just seeing a person in terms of relationships. I'd group this type of inscription with the tendency, growing logarithmically over the past twenty years, to see death purely in terms of those left behind. So funeral services, while they may be 'requiems' in the technical sense, are in fact what they are sometimes called, 'celebrations' of the deceased. Vestments are white, as though for a saint; family and friends are allowed or even encouraged by the priest to come and give 'tributes' to their 'loved one', and prayers for the response of the latter's soul are conspicuous by their absence.

I thought for years that this was a rejection of three of the Four Last Things, but I don't think the problems's primarily doctrinal - after all, November lists are still as full as ever they were: the cause is the dominance of the 'pastoral' model. (That's the model, as you'll know only too bitterly from the goings-on in the Anglican Communion, which concentrates on affirming the sheep in their niceness rather than on fighting off wolves.) A funeral, from this point of view, is all about making the family and friends feel happier, rather than about aiding the departed soul through Purgatory.

So in this reading of the situation, the gravestone inscription you describe is nothing ultimately to do with the lady in question - it's simply part of the ‘It’s All About You’ culture. The dead are dead – forget them. It’s our happiness, our comfort, our consolation that matters: and if we have to put up a gravestone, we’ll talk about them in terms of our relationship with them.

Fr.Ogs said...

Father, I think I know exactly how you feel: try and reason - let alone lay down the law! - at such a point, and one runs the risk of being the subject of Tabloid headlines("Vicar Fights Mourners Over Gravestone"). Naturally, support from The Diocese will be notable by its absence.
None of us was helped in the least by Dean Carr's complicitness (encouragement?) of the Spencer family several years ago (Earl Spencer has a Licence to preach? Earl Spencer has a Licence to preach treasonous matter? A notedly irregular-living person is allowed/encouraged to 'perform' an utterly non-Christian piece, in sacred precincts?).
S.S. is surely right, when she draws attention to how 'celebrations' and 'tributes' have taken the place of any whiff of 'Dies Irae...'
In a churchyard I know of, the deceased is commemorated merely by Christian name ("Bob"...); it was only long afterwards that his Widow realised that, engulfed in grief, she had not thought to have his Surname put on the stone. And I have had non-churchgoing family-members shout down the phone to me, "NO! What we want is..."
And then there are all the frankly creepy things people feel able to put alongside stones, without any reference to the Priest (let alone any Fee to the Diocese: but guess whose side they'd be on, if he stamped his foot?).
Sadly, the day the Church of England learns that being endlessly accommodating to people earns you no respect at all, will be a day too late.

John F H H said...

Is it a big stone?
Gently tell them they need your agreement, tell them what a wonderful woman she was in the parish, lay it on with a trowel,and of course you'll be happy to agree as long as she'll agree to the parish's having something along the lines of Magistra præclara in ludum parochialem underneath: at £2 a letter, the parish might even pay for it??!?!?

Kind regards
John UK

John F H H said...

It goes without saying that the parish would want to add
Jesu mercy. Mary pray
or even
[the considerably less expensive]

John U.K.

motuproprio said...

Time was when the Chancellor would soon have put an end to such nonsense (though he would probably have objected to Jesus Mercy, Mary Pray as well).

Joshua said...

Perhaps the chaste Nonjurors' prayer "May (s)he find mercy of the Lord in that Day" (II Tim. i, 18) would be the via media in this case?

CPKS said...

For a perhaps different view of the recital of worldly achievements, this time on a memorial tablet in Sopley Church, have a look at the epitaph of General Sir George Willis.