On death and remembrance: more unsung heroes

I went to a white British funeral the Friday of the same week as the centenary of the sinking of the Mendi. It was for a remarkable man, a person I only knew for about two years. The emotions caught me unawares – from the moment the piper started warming up (whilst I was doing some other bits in the area). How and why?

Here in the church was a body in the coffin, once at the front of the church, the ashes of his wife carefully wrapped in a scarlet velvet cloth were gently placed on top. After nearly two years the couple were together again. I’d been to Jean’s funeral too. And I couldn’t help but think of others in the congregation who were looking forward to the day when they too would join their partner in rest and peace.

On Thursday, I was paging through the records of York Hospital which had treated men suffering from various ailments as a result of the Peninsular Wars – letters of what happened to the effects of those who died were stapled to returns.

Wednesday afternoon was spent with the student Historical Society of Warwick University, talking about cross-cultural research around World War 1 Africa. A focus being on how different cultures remember their past and how we record it – traditional Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries and Indian Cremation memorials for those of recognised faiths and unmarked mass graves for the others. I’ve often spoken of my encounter with the Masai women at the foot of Salaita Hill who couldn’t understand why white people keep coming to this dusty hill and walk up it. Their remembrance takes place telling stories around the fire. And then my other African friends who believe that a person still lives (a little bit in everyone) until the last person who knew them dies.

Tuesday was remembering the Mendi dead, all those labourers (of all colours) who survived and others who crossed the seas to serve elsewhere during the Great War. And in particular, thinking of the family members of those closely linked with the Mendi, praying the day would not be used for political gain but to truly honour the sacrifice all made in different ways. This had been preceded by my writing and recording an oral history piece for Diversity House on Lifting the Mendi Shroud.

And not to be left out, the previous Friday remembering those who struggled with the conditions and challenges presented by flight, aeroplanes and falling bombs, with a diversion afterwards to the Biafran War and whether childhood recollections could be valid. While on the Thursday I’d been proofreading a piece of work on military chaplains.

There are so many ways of dealing with death and remembrance – and on the note of chaplains, they have a special role to play irrespective of their religious or cultural background as seen in the Chaplain War Diaries of East Africa (WO 95/5308). A moving account or two appears in David Mannall’s Battle of the Lomba. Death at the best of times is difficult to deal with and one can perhaps become immune. However, when it’s a friend or person who departs this earth before their time due to age or violence, it can only be a challenge for these people of faith who give the rest of us succour. They are the unsung and oft-forgotten heroes in all the commemoration events.

What always catches me and one of the reasons I like to go to funerals and memorial services of people I’ve known where I can, is what you discover. I can’t think of one service I’ve been to where I haven’t learnt something extraordinary. This latest funeral revealed that Jim and his wife had not been allowed to marry in a church because they were ‘mixed-race’ – two different Scottish Christian denominations. That was in 1950’s Scotland and not what one generally thinks of as ‘mixed marriage’. At least it was not quite as draconian as the Mixed Marriages Act in South Africa which banned people of different ethnic backgrounds marrying. Digging a bit brought this interesting article to light which suggests that South Africa was not too far removed from what was happening elsewhere. It’s reassuring to know that there were people like Jim who rose above the mass beliefs of the day and fought for equality in their own way.

And today, Saturday, typing this post, I heard about another friend in his eighties who suddenly departed this earth – as Ken had been a professional singer I’m sure the angelic choir has already been enriched with the addition of another baritone.

To all religious men and women, then and now, who cross so many boundaries to bring peace and comfort to the families, friends and comrades of those departed – thank you. Your silent work is recognised.

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2 thoughts on “On death and remembrance: more unsung heroes

  1. Things are often more complex than we think – my grandmother, in 1940s Lancashire, banned my mother from going out with a Catholic boy. In Pietermaritzburg in 1978-9 I recall a newspaper article detailing how Australia was less liberal than South Africa in many racial matters.

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