Sometimes you leave a funeral feeling better about life than you did when it started. Yesterday I had the privilege of leading Jane’s funeral. Jane was a recent worshipper at St Barnabas, my homely and yet amazing little church on the Moss Rose Estate. I didn’t know her very well and her death was very sudden and unexpected. She was 48 and had learning disabilities.
I was a bit reluctant to mention that last bit in case you decided to categorise her by her disability. Jane, I discovered, defined her life by what she wanted to get out of it rather by what it had dealt her. As I mentioned in my last blog, it is often hard to learn about the person in the normal course of preparing for a funeral. What I didn’t mention was that the funeral tells you a lot and all of it is the truth.
300 people braved the rain and the wind to come to Jane’s funeral. Some were quite powerful people from the town, some were neighbours, work colleagues, church people, friends and family. They were not there because Jane’s life was a tragedy or to commiserate with her family. They were there because Jane was an important part of life; because her presence would be missed and because she was a gift from God to them.
During that funeral, I was told about a woman who challenged herself and those around her. She sought to change people’s perception of those who shared her disabilities. Her aspiration was that everyone should be treated as fully human regardless of who they were. She was a focussed and creative fundraiser. She scrutinised plans and helped solve problems. She pushed others to raise their standards, just as she pushed herself. She made presentations at boardroom level and pressed the agencies she had to deal with to get their collective acts together. Her aim was to have the best life possible. Just like everyone else.
So 300 people laughed and cried and reflected together. The people who knew her best spoke lovingly about her. They told us about her key lesson of life: a life fully lived requires you to be fully human. Her demand was to let her be fully human because that is what she was.
At every funeral I take there is one message I always offer. As we live and make our way through the world we give our lives away like a living will. Positively or negatively we leave an inheritance in our wake. I ask them to claim what was good from the life of the one they are mourning and celebrating. I exhort them to also make sure their lives are full of good gifts to pass on as they go through life. This congregation didn’t need to be told this. They came clutching the good gifts Jane had given freely from her life.
Later, a small group of us made our way into rural Cheshire. In an ancient churchyard, under a rain soaked yew tree which plopped fat drops of water down my neck, we committed her to the grave. The air was still and silent as we tossed handfuls of soil on to the lid of her coffin. There was real peace among us as we said thank you and goodbye and made our way through the gravestones and on towards home.