Wednesday, 17 October 2012

An island funeral

I attended the funeral of an acquaintance, who died last Thursday of cancer.
The service was conducted at the Free Church (Continuing) in Sandwick. This split off from the main Free Church of Scotland a number of years ago. In common with the Free Church, no musical instruments were present in that place of worship, which was also totally unadorned. I was 20 minutes early, but the carpark was already full - and carparks at churches here tend to be very spacious. Virtually all the men were wearing black or dark long coats, particularly the elderly. Some of the ladies wore a hat. Once all the mourners were inside, the chief mourners (the relatives) filed in and the service commenced, at the exact time advertised. Those who know Stornoway will be familiar with the little death notices in the windows of certain shops. The notices intimate the time of the funeral, and the time of the service - in this case the service commenced half an hour before the funeral.
The service started with the singing of part of Psalm 98, where the tune was precented a capella by the precentor, with the congregation joining in, at their own pitch and at times their own tempo. One minister offered up prayers for the family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances of the deceased. A church elder then read from Isaiah 40 and Matthew 11, before Psalm 23 was sung in Gaelic. On that occasion, I hummed the tune, as the words are beyond me. Following a final prayer by another minister, the chief mourners filed out of the church with the rest of the congregation standing up, following on behind.
Once outside, a unique ritual began to unfold. The menfolk, myself included, filed up in two lines, standing next to each other. In between, the coffin stood on a bier, and men took turns to carry the bier a longer or shorter distance. The road was closed to traffic, and in this instance it was Sandwick Road, the main road linking Stornoway with the airport. There were about 200 people present, and the carrying of the coffin carried on to the junction with North Street, and up North Street. Once people had done their stint of carrying, they would stand aside and cast their gaze aside as well. Those who had not yet done a stint continued to follow the coffin, until they had their chance.
Once the procession had passed me, after I had done my bit of carrying, I left proceedings. A bus was ready to take the chief mourners to the cemetery at Gress for interment.

Three dozen their number

Long reach the arms of the sea
North from the channel off the isle of the mists
High rise the mountains
As they impotently block passage

Reach to the sky in vertiginous heights
Grey in the clouds, grey the rocks strewn
Brown in heather tumbling down
to a narrow green strip by the water

Three dozen their number, now only two
A ruinous house, the outline of walls
The poorest of ground, in strips parallel
Draining the bogland for crops

Fishing the waters to feed the mouths
Rearing some cattle for milk at the hearth
Three dozen their number, now only two
Where the others go to?

Look for them northward, on divided land
demonstrating the asymptote
the more you divide, the lesser you get
until you’re near nothing, in all possible respects

Another sea arm, do not breathe in
You won’t fit in your strip of land
You’ll be wider than that
Three dozen their number, now only two

Whilst thirty-four cram onto alien shores
And two come and go
Their land went to sheep
But even that was not enough

And the stag now roars his lust
Whilst being chased, shot and gutted - for fun
Three dozen townships teetering
on the edge of existence

on the edge of the sea
pushed to extinction for the greed of another
Napoleon’s defeat heralded their demise
Peace took their livelihood

An end to subsistence
An end to life, more than through war
What have we now, in the derelict corner?
A rich man’s playground

A rich man’s money press
Soon churning out power.
Three dozen their number
Now only two