When my brother got sick and started very seriously contemplating the end of his life he started considering options for burial and memorials. At the time we, his family, didn’t know about it but he was talking to a good friend of his – Jane – about the matter. She suggested he write out what he wanted for the memorial himself.
To fully appreciate what happened next you need to understand what kind of a man my brother was in one very important respect: he was used to running things. He was a natural leader and very accustomed to being in charge. Writing out lesson plans for his classes (and his partner’s), sermons for his fellow Christians, advice for the people he gave spiritual guidance for – and that’s only in his later life. Since we were kids he was the one standing up and speaking, making sure everyone was on time, working out who was to bring what and when they had to do their thing (depending on the situation).
Colin agreed that writing his own memorial would be a good idea and so he did.
In fact he wrote out two. One was for his church-related fellows and one was secular, primarily for us, his family. We worked out which songs he wanted, the order they were to be played in and a few short words to be said between. He also, of course, left space for us to have our say. To his credit he didn’t attempt to write his own eulogy. A natural born leader he was but humble too.
Anyway, he ended up having three memorials instead of two. Sort of. See, he wanted to be cremated. Our father is firmly against cremation (and I can’t say I like it much either) so he made sure to say that nobody had to attend it, and that he didn’t want his body present at the two memorials he wrote. So of course our whole family turned up to the cremation. We sat in the chapel for an hour and laid flowers on his coffin (I added an origami butterfly, a hand-made symbol of transformation and renewal which I thought he’d have quite liked), experiencing the silence as we sat with our grief as my brother’s body lay in state. It was simple. It was pure. It was beautiful.
You know. As funerals go.
That happened on Monday the 8th of July. His religious memorial took place in an Anglican church on Wednesday the 10th and was conducted by (for the most part) people who loved and respected him. Make no mistake: many amongst the Church that he served faithfully (I capitalise ‘Church’ to differentiate the Anglican religious establishment from the physical building) did not respect him. Colin was a gay man and made no excuses for it. Many of the people who should have shown him respect instead gave him only scorn and derision. The people who spoke at my brother’s religious memorial were all religious themselves and they gave the Church no quarter in expressing their opinions of how, in their words, the Church had failed Colin.
You see, there’s a difference between the people who hold the faith and the people who command the Church. While many Anglicans are unrepentantly homophobic (and I use that word with, I feel, absolute accuracy) there are many who are not. There are areas in which the priests and parishioners disagree with the Church’s official doctrine and interpret aspects of the Bible in the way they feel is true. Faith in God does not automatically equate to faith in the Church. Keep that in mind the next time you hassle a Christian about Church doctrine. They might agree with you.
I am not, for the record, Christian myself.
Colin’s dedication and faith – and the words that were prompted by his life – will likely have quiet but meaningful implications in local religious politics for some time to come. One can hope that change will start happening for the better.
On Thursday the 11th my brother David and I conducted Colin’s secular memorial at my parents’ home, out in the garden. The weather favoured us. It was a successful ceremony and people seemed to enjoy it (for a given value of ‘enjoy’; I suppose one can enjoy something that isn’t fun if it serves its purpose well). We played the songs he requested and spoke the words he’d written down. There was music and there was poetry. It even included a stone-memory ritual in which guests took decorated stones to remember him by and placed plain stones around a tree to symbolise putting their hurts behind them. Perhaps people didn’t entirely understand that part, I’m not sure. People interpret symbolism differently.
In most memorials and funerals there is a point where people can stand up and speak their own minds about the deceased. My uncle Noel spoke for my parents. David gave a stirring eulogy that made us laugh and grieve at the same time. I also spoke my piece – or a piece of my piece – and I’ve copied that below. It’s not very long and it’s doubtful as to whether it did him justice, but it’s what I felt I had to say.
I invite you to read it.
My name is Scott. I’m the youngest of four boys.
I’m a creative writer, amongst other things, so I’m used to picking out words, like a heron plucking frogs from the reeds of a riverbank.
But sometimes the pain runs too deep, and there are no words, and the heron goes hungry.
* * * * *
I had a brother. His name was Colin.
Each of us is a child. We love with a child’s heart, rage with a child’s anger and grieve with a child’s pain. What makes us adults are the moments we live, wrapped about us like the lining on a pearl – the joys, the lessons, the mistakes and the sadness. The moments of Colin’s life challenged him fiercely but he rose to those trials. Where some people might have become hard and bitter he simply seemed to become more caring and compassionate. He had his moments of anger, of course, as we all do, but on the whole he took the pain and difficulty, the disrespect and scorn, the illness and treatments, turning them into the sort of grace of being that we all knew and loved him for.
He viewed and loved others with a child’s acceptance that many of us find it difficult at best to muster.
* * * * *
I have a brother. His name is Peter. I can’t claim to imagine his pain but I think I can risk saying that I speak for all of my family when I say that we love him as one of us and will be here for him for as long as he wants us to be.
* * * * *
In closing I want to say that it’s all too easy to think that Colin lost his fight. I don’t think that’s true. We’re all mortal; none of us will avoid death. The fight, then, is to face one’s trials and illness with dignity, with strength, with courage.
This intelligent, compassionate, creative, humble and ultimately humbling man – my brother – didn’t lose this fight.
Ave atque vale, Colin. Hail, and farewell.