Thanksgiving & Memorial Service at St Christopher’s Hospice

July 15th, 2015

by Mark Hayford, Humanist Celebrant & Ritelines Editor

Strange, being back here in the very building where, seventeen years ago almost to the day, I watched my father die. Against Dylan Thomas’s explicit instructions my father did ‘go gentle into that good night’, and the actual moment of his death was unexpectedly beautiful, in that he took one last (huge) breath and then just stopped, like a clock, and was utterly calm. It was a moment of pure grace and, painful as it was to lose him, I felt a lifetime of my own ‘death terror’ evaporate in a few, extraordinary seconds. As Freya Stark reminds us: ‘There can be no safe happiness until this fact that has been faced: an absolute condition of all successful living is the acceptance of death.’

‘Here’ is St. Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham and I’m here to co-host a ‘Thanksgiving and Memorial Service’, working in tandem with, and at the behest of, the resident chaplain and ‘spiritual care lead’ Dr Andrew Goodhead. Here is man of the cloth who has seen fit to ask me (and by extension, us), into an end-of-life care facility with the express purpose of offering grieving relatives a humanist alternative. This is as admirable as it is open-minded and the service itself was an extraordinary thing to be part of. Over 150 relatives and staff attended the moving, ninety-minute ceremony on a hot Sunday afternoon, a ceremony that comprised a series of readings interspersed with carefully chosen pieces of music. Yes, there were prayers and a hymn but there were also a number of powerful, non-religious readings and wonderful music from the likes of Eva Cassidy and Alison Moyet, whose version of Purcell’s ‘When I am laid in Earth’ is one of the most delicate I’ve ever heard. Tears were shed, candles were lit as Dr Goodhead and I took it in turns to read our various screeds. The definition of ‘screed’ is a ‘long and monotonous speech’, but I can assure you that our contributions were anything but. Before I read I was invited to introduce myself as a humanist minister and explain the reason for my presence and I did. It was a joy to stand and deliver excerpts from Gibran’s The Prophet, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Bertrand Russell’s Human Existence, as well as to share Rabindranath Tagore’s Farewell My Friends, which starts with the exquisite line: ‘It was beautiful as long as it lasted, the journey of my life.’ No, not everyone’s life journey is beautiful, and for millions the journey’s end is unrelentingly grim, as the silent tears of the many spectators made plain, but this was still an important break-through for those of us with little faith (or none), and I hope it will set a precedent for other hospices and thanksgiving ceremonies across the UK?

Since that fateful day in 1998 when my father died I have been back to St. Christopher’s on numerous occasions to meet terminal patients (and their families), to take their instructions on how they would like their funerals to be delivered, and this has been a remarkable and unexpected addition to the work I normally do. As luck would have it, I have subsequently been in a position to the deliver the humanist funeral we have planned, together, and this has lent an authenticity to the funeral that is so often lacking, as I can say with utter conviction that I have, in fact, met the deceased and I’m keeping my word to them by following their instructions to the letter. I’m pleased to say that I have been invited back by Dr Goodhead to give a repeat performance at some point in the near future, and I will gladly go. Why not? Non-religious views sit side-by-side with religious in the real world, and how refreshing to meet a minister who embraces that, and who is prepared to give his non-religious families the opportunity to have their views expressed, as well as his own.