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.

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