The Unitarian Church in Higher Theraton was once a towering example of high Victorian Gothic. Though now the stone spire is streaked with black sooty pollution and the once grand windows are covered in steel mesh and fibreglass sheets. In the cemetery, ageing grave stones and trees competed for space and a small number of more recent polished memorial stones shone like beacons as they caught the sun. Inside, the original architecture still stood almost the same as it had been originally built, aged and worn but with adjustments for wheel chair accessibility and modern heating. Electric lighting replaced the candles and carpet covered the stone floors. The organ pipes were mostly silenced now in favour of an amplified public address sound system, and huge speaker boxes hung from the stone columns looking more like a theatre then a place for worship. Three people fussed about inside making sure flowers, readings, music, and a solitary burning candle were ready.
Daisy held Harriet’s hand as they approached the church. “Hi Amanda, Adam. How are you both holding up?”
“We’re… we’re okay, Harriet. Thank you for coming. And you must be, err… Daisy? Daisy. How are you? It’s good to finally meet you. Harriet has told us about you. I’m Adam, and this my wife, Amanda.”
Daisy was feeling a little self conscious intruding on their grief. She had heard Harriet talk about her friends but she was a stranger to them, and perhaps they wouldn’t want her there. “Hello, I am so very sorry for you loss, Amanda.”
“Thank you, Daisy, It is good of you to come with Harriet.” Amanda smiled. “We’ve heard so much about you and it is lovely to see Harriet looking so happy and settled. You will join us later, won’t you? I’d give you a hug, but, masks, distancing… you know. It’s a shame, a big church but so few of us. Understandable really, but still, Mum would have liked so many of her friends to have been here.” Amanda was talking just to fill the silence. She didn’t want silence, silence allowed her to think, talking kept her mind elsewhere.
Daisy felt a flush of guilt. “I’m sorry, perhaps if I didn’t come then someone else could be here.”
“No no, it’s fine. Mum’s friends couldn’t come anyway. Mostly too far, or isolating. No, really, we could have a few more, but no one local enough to make it. Please, you really are welcome.”
Adam looked around. “I think it is time to go in.” He guided Amanda towards the entrance and through the open doors. Harriet and Daisy followed. Inside, a warden guided them to their pews, two rows behind Adam and Amanda. There were no more then a dozen people drifting in and the fifty or so pews made it look so sparsely attended.
After the few minutes it took for everyone to be seated Reverend Esther Sutherland walked across to the lectern and stepped up to begin the service. She nodded to one of the wardens and there was a slight crackle from the speakers as music began to be played, ‘Someone Said Goodbye’ by Enya. As the haunting music filled and reverberated through the church silence fell upon the congregation and Sybil’s simple and undecorated wooden coffin was brought in and placed on trestles. The pall bearers turned to face the coffin, bowed their heads, and walked away solemnly.
“Welcome to this sanctuary, a place of peace and comfort.” Esther began. “We are gathered here as family and friends of Sybil Foley, whether we knew her as a member of our family or as a friend. We are here today, in this church, because she touched our lives.
This church is also filled with those who could not be here today but whose thoughts and prayers are with us all.
We come here with different faith backgrounds and perhaps with no definite faith at all, but for this time we are a gathered congregation, united because we love and care for each other and wish to offer our strength where it is needed.
So as we begin this service, let us join together in prayer, knowing that it does not matter what God, or inner voice we pray to, simply that it matters that we are here. Let us pray.”
Esther watched as heads bowed. It was a prayer she had spoken often, for so many funerals, but she still thought carefully about the words and their meaning, as she did for all the prayers.
“Spirit of life and love, as we gather here this day let us remember the many blessings which have come to our lives through Sybil. We give thanks for the friendship she gave, and the strength and joy which she brought. We give thanks for the love which she offered and received while she was with us.
“We pray that nothing good in her life will be lost, but will be of benefit to the world; that all that was important to her will be respected by those who follow; and that those things which she loved will continue to mean much to us.
“We remember her for the incredible woman she was, laughing and crying, hurting and rejoicing, though each of us could only know a portion of her world. Though her body and her voice will no longer be with us except in memory, her spirit will live on through those who were closest to her, in their hearts and minds, in their courage and consciences.
“May those of us who feel burdened by things we feel we left too late to do, or too late to say, find healing and forgiveness within ourselves. Grant us the grace to let go – to let go of this woman we love, that she may find her rest; and to let go of all lingering hurts, that we may be at peace with our remembering. And may the words and feelings and stories we share in these quiet moments strengthen us in our sympathy and support for one another. Amen
“And I invite anyone who wishes to, to join together with me in saying the Lord’s Prayer.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever, Amen.”
A quiet mumble of voices had joined in, revealing those familiar with the prayer, and those struggling to remember the words they may have once learnt.
Esther looked across the congregation and noted the few faces she recognised among those she didn’t.
“Throughout this service the order of music was chosen by Sybil, and are some of her favourite and more contemporary pieces.” Esther looked thoughtful as she sat down again, considering the music that Sybil had selected for her own funeral.
‘Only Love Can Save me Now’ by Kimmie Rhodes began to play.
As the song drew to a close Esther stood and took a sip of water from the glass on the lectern and cleared her throat.
“At such a time as this, we gather with many emotions and with many memories stirring in our minds. Each of us here today is different from the next person and so it is inevitable that there will be different thoughts and griefs, anger and hurt, hopes and prayers in each of our hearts – so many different emotions, all of them valid. But the thing everyone of you has in common with everyone else is that your life has been touched, lightly or to the very core of your being, by Sybil.
“We are here for Sybil, but we are also here to give our support and our love to Amanda, – her daughter, Adam, – Amanda’s husband, and the other wider members of her group of friends.
“But whether close or distant, we are all here to honour Sybil. And we will honour her most by telling our stories of her, not so much listing facts and dates, but by sharing our memories of Sybil, for it is in our memories and our hearts that she will live on. You will now hear some personal tributes about how Sybil got to be the woman she was, and how special a person she was.”
Esther bowed her head and used the moment to check the script she had written for Sybil’s eulogy. She had checked it many times, as she had done with all of the readings, but there was comfort in the routine. She took a breath to steady herself and began.
“It’s maybe less unusual for a minister to be conducting the funeral of someone they know, as it might be for someone who is a stranger to them. Over the years I have known many of my parishioners well and some have become close personal friends. But Sybil is, perhaps, both a friend and a stranger.
I first saw Sybil when we were in nursery school. We were the closest of friends for a few years, but lives change and my family moved away. I never saw Sybil again but often thought of her and wondered how she was and what kind of life she was enjoying. Back then there wasn’t the internet to search for long lost friends and relatives. Oh yes, some of us came from a time before the internet! And I had given up ever knowing what had become of my childhood friend. But, it seems, Sybil had not. With much perseverance, hindered by my poor ability to maintain an ‘online presence’, Sybil tracked me down recently and we got in touch again. I was ecstatic to hear from Sybil after quite a bit more then half a century, and Sybil sounded so happy to have found me too. But, alas, it was all too late. Sybil was dying from cancer, that dreaded ‘C’ word. She knew that, with treatment, she could live quite a while longer but she said she had made her peace with the world and was ready to move on to a new adventure. We made plans to meet up but then that other dreaded ‘C’ word, Covid, happened and our hopes and plans were dashed. Sybil managed to avoid catching Covid, thanks to the gallant efforts of Amanda and Adam, Sybil’s daughter and son in law, who moved her into their family home to keep her isolated and safe in her final months.
And so I had found a beautiful and wonderful friend in childhood, and then we lost each other. And by the miracle of modern technology we rediscovered each other, only to lose each other again at the last moment.
“Sybil and I didn’t have the chance to say good bye when we first lost each other, and nearly six decades later, we almost didn’t have the chance to say good bye again. I never got the chance to share in all the parts of Sybil’s amazing life first hand, nor hear about most of it from her in person and so, sadly, so much of her very being will remain not only a friend, but also a stranger to me.
“Some of Sybil’s friends and family will be sharing some of their stories of Sybil’s life, but first lets us pray….
“Spirit of Love, giver of life and death, accept our deep gratitude for the life of Sybil. Though we feel deep hurt that this woman we loved has left us before we were ready to let her go, let us also feel blessed by what we shared.
I invite you now to picture Sybil in your mind. Thumb through the photographs of your memory, run again the film of the life you shared. Remember the sunshine and the rain, the laughter and the tears, all that made Sybil unique and special, all that continues to keep her special for you.
As we remember, we are going to hear a piece of music that speaks of Sybil and how each of us were to her. So let us share a time of quietness, of music and of memories together, now.”
Faces looked up expectantly as ‘The Corner of the Bar’ by Kimmie Rhodes began to play and Esther left the lectern to take a seat.
As the music came to an end Amanda stood up. Adam looked up at her and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, and smiled encouragingly. Amanda steadied herself and walked past her mother’s coffin and up to the lectern to give her eulogy. She took a moment, closed her eyes and imagined her Mother standing beside her, hand on her shoulder, while her body lay in rest beside her.
“My Mother, Sybil…” Amanda found it hard to start, though the words were in front of her. She looked across to the coffin. “Mum…” Her voice trembled. “My Mum was an amazing woman both in her youth and in her later years. She lived for travelling and set off on a solo trip hitch hiking to India when she was in her late teens. I think it was the done thing for people to do that back then, to find something spiritual. She had that spirit of adventure and independence and was always looking for something new. Of course, with all that looking she eventually found my Father, serving in Germany, and I am forever grateful for that even if he was less so. Though Dad was in the Army he never liked all the travelling, but Mum wasn’t going to let that stop her and she and I travelled extensively, both when I was a child and when I became an adult, and so I got to see so many parts of the world, and experience so many cultures. It wasn’t until Dad tragically died just over 15 years ago that Mum and I came back to stay. It was the first time I spent more then a year at one address.
“One of my fondest memories was when we were travelling across Australia. The car broke down and Mum and I ran out of money, in the middle of nowhere on our way to Adelaide, and so Mum blagged a job at an outback garage as a mechanic! Who knew she could change a head gasket on a car engine? I didn’t, and the two Aussie mechanics didn’t either. She made a deal with them that if she could change the head gasket and have the car running they would give her a job, and if she couldn’t she would cook dinner for them for the week! Needless to say she never cooked dinner for them!
I did ask Mum when she learnt to be a mechanic and she said ‘On the second day of that job!’. It was only because she read a car maintenance manual out of boredom that she remembered how to do the head gasket. But that was her way. With all of her skills and abilities, she had either read it once, seen it once, or done it once, and her favourite phrase was ‘Well, how hard can it be?’
“She lived so many lives, from waitressing, to mechanic-ing, to office management, and in so many places around the world. She was never afraid of trying or learning anything that was new, though she did turn her nose up at the silver surfer computer courses the council offered as ‘too basic’ after she had taught herself on a second hand Windows 95 desktop she found in a charity shop!”
Amanda paused for the small ripple of laughter. She looked back at her script and held her breath for a moment and felt the tears begin to well up in her eyes.
“Even when Mum knew she was dying she never stopped thinking about the adventure, and that is what she saw it as, another journey to a new place she had never visited before, only this time she will… she will go without me. I will find her again one day, but not yet.”
As Amanda began to cry Adam quickly walked up to her at the lectern to hold her in his arms. As ‘My love is quiet’ by Adam Carpenter began to play he guided her back to her pew.
Adam held Amanda in his arms until the music ended before giving her a quick kiss on the cheek. “My turn now.” He whispered to her. “Will you be okay, love?” Amanda nodded and Adam stood, straightened his jacket, and walked to the lectern. As he stood there his fingers tingled as his nervousness competed with his duty. Adam avoided public speaking whenever he could though this was not the time to pull out. He took a quick glance up and seeing so few faces, all of them people he loved, he felt himself become just calm enough to speak.
“There…” He coughed. “There have been many Mother in Law jokes over the decades, maybe even centuries. Don’t worry, I’m not going to repeat any of them, though Sybil might have done.” Adam hoped he didn’t sound too flippant.
“I am not great with words, so I’ll… I’ll keep this brief. Sybil was many things but she was never the stereotype Mother in Law from those jokes. Granted she wasn’t always easy for me to get on with, but only because she knew me and knew I could be an awkward Son of a… in Law…
“I could never pull the wool over her eyes about anything, even things she didn’t know about and was asking advice for. She would know if I was bluffing or speaking beyond my own knowledge. I suppose that came from all her travel experiences. To have done all that, with her daughter, and survived unscathed she must have been damned good at reading people and recognising who was trying to pull a fast one or take advantage. But also that ability meant that she could see the good in people too, and their strengths and potential, and who would deserve her trust and respect. I am honoured that Sybil accepted me into her family.
I said I wouldn’t repeat any Mother in Law jokes, I will make an exception for this one. They say that if you want to know what your wife will be like when she is older, just look at your Mother in Law.
Well, if that were proved to be true then I will be very happy with my lot.
Sybil was just a really lovely and amazing person, and I am really going to miss her.”
As Adam wiped the tears from his eyes and took a deep breath. He looked across the congregation one last time and then walked quickly back to his seat as ‘Loving Arms’ by The Chicks began to play. Adam sat and put his arms around Amanda comforting each other.
Unseen and unnoticed in her seat the Reverend Esther Sutherland was quietly crying.
Harriet gave Daisy’s hand a squeeze, she had been holding it throughout the service so far, but now she had to stand and make her eulogy. She walked up the aisle, touching her hand on each pew as she went, just to steady herself. She paused briefly to acknowledge Sybil’s coffin before stepping up to the lectern.
Once there she found a sheaf of papers clipped together, and with her name on top, ready for her to read. The Reverend had thought of everything to make it as easy as possible for everyone. Harriet felt for the folded bundle of notes she had in her own pocket and decided to use the copy that was ready for her. She took a couple of deep breaths and looked around at the faces looking up at her expectantly. She let her eyes rest on Amanda and smiled briefly at her as they acknowledged each other’s grief. She then glanced across at Daisy, and began to read.
“Sometimes in life we are touched by someone who leaves a mark on our lives, a welcome mark that has fond memories and a good feeling.
Sybil touched all our lives as Amanda’s Mother, but above all she touched all of our hearts as our friend.
There was no one she wouldn’t help, nothing she wouldn’t do, nor promises she wouldn’t keep.”
Harriet wondered if she was speaking too loudly. The microphone was deceptive. No, try to speak confidently and hold it together, she thought. She took another deep breath and continued…
“When I first met Sybil, it was at Amanda and Adam’s wedding. There I found I felt so at ease with her that I told her I was estranged from my own Mother for being a lesbian, and she hugged me. That was Sybil.
“When I needed her, she was there for me as my Mother should.
When I was alone, she stood with me as a Sister would.
And when I was troubled she was there as my best friend.
She really was as a Mother, a Sister and a best friend to me and I will miss her as all of those things.
When I needed shelter she gave me a room.
When I was hungry, she fed me until I was full.
When I was thirsty, she gave me as much as I needed to drink.
And when I was lost, she guided me.
“We talked to each other about many things but Sybil never competed with her knowledge. She shared what she knew keenly and freely, and she wanted everyone to have the same chance to know and experience as much as she did. Her guidance and knowledge of so many things helped shape and extend my own world into what it is now.
An idea of how special Sybil was to me was at a superhero fancy dress party for Amanda’s 30th birthday. Sybil dressed as Wonder Woman, ummm, yeah, try not to think too hard about that one…”
A brief murmur of muffled laughter spread through the church, “…and I went dressed as Sybil!
But this was Sybil to me, a most wonderful person and my genuine superhero.”
Harriet smiled, the memory buoyed her up in her grief, and she gained confidence in her words.
“We could remember Sybil as being a particularly special, outstanding and unusually good person, but I don’t believe she would agree with that. I think Sybil just did all the things we would wish to do for each other but sometimes never quite managed to do.
Maybe, with Sybil’s passing, we should not be thinking ‘What will I do without her?’ but ‘What part of her can we do for each other?’
In being as generous of heart as Sybil was to each of us, we can best remember her as one who gave more then she received, did more then she told us about, and asked for nothing in return.
“Sybil has brought us all together in this world and shown each of us unconditional and whole hearted love and generosity. If we could each continue in this way as Sybil would have, then perhaps, that would be the thing that really made her special.”
Harriet moistened her lips and tried to fight back the self consciousness of reading in public her attempt at something poetic.
“I think Sybil would want you to know that it is something like this:
“With all my heart, I do this for you,
With all my love, I do this for you,
With all my strength, I do this for you,
And for that I want no reward.
“That I have known you,
That I have been loved by you,
That I have been able to help you,
Is all that I had hoped for in life.
“So do not cry, for I am still with you,
Do not be sad, for my life was full of joy,
Do not stand still, for there is so much to experience,
Enjoy life and know that I am happy for you.
“If someone is hurting, be there for them,
If you are laughing, share that laughter,
If someone needs help, offer your hand,
If someone need to speak, then hear them.
“So scrape off the grass, and dig me a hole,
Forget all the granite, the carvings, and gold,
Don’t build me a tomb, but give me a door,
There’s adventure out there and I want it all the more.
“Don’t stop what you’re doing because you think I’m not there,
Look all around you, you’ll see I am here,
Not in the buildings, the town, and the wood,
But deep in your hearts doing most good.”
Harriet bowed her head and allowed the emotions to well up. As her tears fell into her glasses, she removed them and waited for the music to start. As ‘Just To Be Near You’ by Kimmie Rhodes started to play she walked back to her pew. Daisy stood to meet her and held her in an embrace. “Well done, Harriet, that was beautiful.”.
Esther discretely dabbed her eyes dry and then stood to return to the lectern as the song ended. Keep it professional, she said to herself as she fussed with the scripts before reaching to her bible for her own notes.
“Before we reach the end of this service, I’ve been asked to say that there will be a brief service for immediate family at Theraton crematorium for Sybil’s committal, at 11.30am. These are their Covid restrictions so for the rest of you please do join the family again at Theraton Community Centre at 12.30pm for an outdoor gathering.
“So being together this morning has allowed us to begin to express the grief, the anguish we’ve been feeling and for which we were not prepared.
But I speak now to those of us who are here as friends. We are not the family of Sybil. But we are here because we care as much for them as we did for Sybil.
“We cannot be them, we cannot feel as they do. What can we do?
We can acknowledge their pain and their suffering and be ready when they need us.
Perhaps we can hold them in our arms.
Perhaps we can only hold them in our hearts and prayers.
But hold them we shall. This, we promise, for Sybil.
“But for now we came to remember and we have told our stories, and will tell many more in the days, months and years to come.
We came to give thanks and we are so grateful that our lives were touched by Sybil.
We came to wish Sybil Godspeed and so we commend her to the never-ending care of the Divine Spirit of Love.
“Sybil is at peace, our care now must be for the living. And so my final benediction is for each and every one of you.
May God give you comfort and peace, light and hope, in this world and forever. And may the love of God remain with you and be among you always.
The final piece of music, ‘Long Long Journey’ by Enya, began to play. After a few moments the pall bearers returned. They paused respectfully on each side of Sybil’s coffin before lifting it to their shoulders. They turned, one step at a time, until they were facing back down towards the narthex and then began the slow walk down the aisle and out to the hearse. No one moved as they waited for Amanda and Adam to dictate the moment. As the sound of the narthex doors opening echoed through the church Adam stood, and helped Amanda to her feet and everyone else stood with them. Amanda lead the way as they walked slowly out to the funeral car.
(Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the Rev. Anna Jarvis, minister for Monton Unitarian Church, for her help and guidance in the religious wording, prayers, and arrangements of Sybil’s funeral service.)