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FROM THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PARSON (Retd.)

Early last week I was asked by a neighbouring colleague if I could officiate at a funeral on the following Friday at a local church which is at present without an Incumbent. He explained that he was 'snowed under' with various pressures. He told me that the deceased was from a town about twenty miles away, but that she had had some connection with the church at which the funeral had been requested. It was, I was told, likely to be a 'big' funeral.

Shortly afterwards an undertaker telephoned to confirm the matter, and I told him that I would like to see the bereaved husband, but that my age and incapacity made my going to see him almost impossible. It was arranged therefore that the husband would come to see me. He made an appointment for 11.a.m., but about 10.50. phoned to say that he had had a puncture and would be late. Well, these things do happen. He eventually arrived at about 12.45. A morning gone, and a late lunch.

Towards the end of the visit I asked him if he or any member of the family would like to do a reading. He said that he would, and what was it?

I told him that I had not yet had a chance to look at the service, but would let him have a reading. He said that he would call again the following day. I had a reading typed out for him when he called the next morning, but on looking over it he said that he could not possibly read what I had produced and could he read the 23rd. Psalm. To this I diplomatically agreed.

Meanwhile I had contacted the lady Churchwarden to ensure that the Burial Register would be available. She said that she would investigate the contents of the Church safe, but on doing so, found that the register was missing. After a lengthy piece of detective work it was located at the house of a layman of the parish who had borrowed it without permission to 'do some research'. The Churchwarden assured me that she had obtained the services of an organist - who happened to be my next-door neighbour.

Friday dawned cold and clear. Unfortunately on the previous evening my left leg had given way to senility and I found it difficult to walk - but needs must...

I arrived at the Church at about 11.30 for the funeral at 12.noon. A few minutes later the organist arrived, but as for anyone representing the parish, there was none. People were beginning to congregate, and I noticed that for the expected congregation of over 80, most of them already outside, there were only twenty-odd hymn books - just about enough for the immediate family. No printed service order was forthcoming. After about ten minutes, following my recruiting the organist to hand out such books as were available, the lady Churchwarden appeared, explaining that she would be unable to stay for the service as she had to dash off. I enquired as to any extra hymn books, but there were none. She asked for permission to dash off to another Church and borrow their books. On this being given she said that she had nothing to put them in. I emptied out my attaché case .... and she dashed off.

Meanwhile I lit candles with the matches which I had brought with me. Apart from rubbing two sticks together there seemed to be no other means of ignition.

Then the Undertaker arrived, and in his undertaker's funereal voice asked me how much were the fees. I had assumed that either he would know this - after all they do arrange funerals practically every day of the week - or that the table of fees would be displayed somewhere in the Church.

On both counts I was wrong. A table of fees was displayed in a frame in the vestry - the one relevant to 1981!

The undertaker must have trusted me more than was warranted as he then gave me two blank cheques so that I could fill in the relevant amounts.

Then an elderly parishioner arrived to tell me that the heating had been on since 4.30 that morning in preparation for a school service at 1.30.p.m. Sometimes, he told me, the switchgear misbehaved and started to make a 'terrible noise'. If this happened, I was to 'pull that lever'. I was naturally very interested in this, with about five minutes to 'blast off'.

The Churchwarden arrived back with hymnbooks and had to be asked to see to their distribution before she 'dashed off'. The elderly gentleman had by now disappeared.

By 'putting on the agony' - in two senses - I managed to get through the service and the interment whilst suffering some leg pain. Nobody sang 'Let saints of earth in concert sing', a few sang 'the King of Love' and a few more sang 'Abide with me'. The organ has no swell, so it is fortissimo all the way, which drowns out the silence.

Almost everyone in the congregation came to the grave and each threw a flower on the coffin. This routine kept me standing in the frost for about another fifteen minutes.

On returning to the Church I found that the organist, out of the goodness of her heart, had sorted out the hymnbooks, but of Churchwarden there was no sign. On a plate at the door was a collection to be counted - guess by whom - which amounted to over £300 in used notes. Fortunately 'lead us not into temptation' was effective.

The elderly gentleman arrived - probably to find out if the lever had been pulled - it had not. I enquired whether there was any sort of bag or envelope into which I could put the collection. There was not - apart from a vacuum cleaner bag which if each end were rolled up ....

I put the Register, the 'green form' and the collection in my case and headed home for warmth and a late lunch. The organist asked about the hymn books.

"She'd better get them back to the Church she took them from," I replied - "I'm taking the service there myself on Sunday."

After lunch I completed the entry in the Register and counted the collection - if any had fallen out of the Hoover bag, then tough!

I telephoned the Churchwarden to tell her about the whereabouts of the Register and the matter of fees.

On Saturday I got down to some serious accounting, filling in the amounts due to the P.C.C on one cheque and to myself and the organist on the other, drawing up a statement which I faxed to the undertaker together with a copy of the table, of fees for 2002 - with copies to the P.C.C. I then went to the local Post Office and paid in the cash to my Girobank account, making out and posting a cheque to the Royal United Hospital in Bath, the designated destination, suggesting that they acknowledge direct to the bereaved. I also sent off the relevant part of the 'green form' to the Registrar who had, with wonderful forethought, provided a stamped envelope. I handed the organist her fee over the party hedge.

I greatly regret that my lack of foresight in not taking with me a dustpan and brush. With this I could have removed the mud which various flower arrangers had left on the carpet. I am also to blame for not making a trip to the church well in advance to ascertain the number of hymn books available.

However, the amount of work involved in this operation when compared with the fee received means that the hourly rate is considerably less than that of a public toilet cleaner in Bethnal Green, probably less than is made by a busker at Charing Cross, but then, we don't do it for the money do we? Nevertheless, if anyone has the nerve to object to my taking the full officiant's fee, then go ahead and sue me!

Next year I am considering going free-lance in which case fees charged will be commensurate with those charged by my dentist and solicitor.

(Today - Sunday - the hymn books had been returned, and the completed Burial Register taken by the Churchwarden. R.I.P.)

For their excellent and efficient service the P.C.C. collect £154. Their 'hourly rate' is therefore comparable with that of the Chairman of I.C.I.

WJG. 23.12.01

© The Estate of William John Green, 2004