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My father's funeral

My father died ten days ago.

It wasn't unexpected. When the moment came it was a bit of a blessing. Even my mother thought so.

He had been ill for a long time and had undergone four major operations including a heart transplant 17 years ago.

The funeral service took place yesterday at the small Norman church in the tiny Derbyshire village where my parents have lived for 35 years.

It was a glorious sunny day so we began by sitting in the garden of my parents' house, with its magnificent view of the adjacent hills.

When the hearse arrived we followed it on foot to the church. Outside the church we stopped and waited under a canopy of trees while the coffin was lifted out.

It was quiet and very peaceful. A bit too quiet.

Apart from a dozen family members there was no-one to be seen except the undertakers and the church warden who was conducting the service.

We'd placed a small notice in the local paper but many of my parents' peers are elderly or infirm and because of his own ill health my dad hasn't been an active member of the community for some time.

It crossed my mind we might be the only people there.

We followed the coffin bearers down the path and as the church door opened there was a sight I shall never forget.

Every seat in every pew (apart from those reserved for family) was taken. The little church was full of villagers, friends and former colleagues.

Members of Rotary and Inner Wheel were there. Even a retired local farmer.

After the service they joined us for refreshments in the village hall. There was a buzz of chatter and laughter.

My dad was a great bird watcher and while everyone was eating, drinking and talking a swallow flew in, circled the room, and sat on the rafters.

Someone joked it was my father looking down on us. If it was he would have enjoyed it enormously.

Then it was time for the committal at Bretby Crematorium, a 45 minute drive via the beautiful village of Repton.

I've only been to a crematorium once, many years ago, and it wasn't a great experience. It felt soulless, a conveyor belt of coffins.

Bretby was fine. Set in "attractive woodlands", committals (or funerals) take place at 45-minute intervals, Monday to Friday.

Last year the crematorium "conducted its highest number of services ever". Thankfully they're very discreet because we didn't see a single funeral party (apart from our own) and while the committal was quick it was handled very sensitively.

Earlier in the week the undertakers invited us to choose music to be played as we entered and exited the crematorium chapel.

For our entrance my mother chose 'Ein Deutsches Requiem' by Johannes Brahms. For our exit (or, more accurately, my father's exit) she chose 'Serenade' (D Bourgeois) by the Black Dyke Mills Band.

It was an idiosyncratic yet perfect choice. We left the chapel with a smile on our face. It was that sort of day.

PS. This is a bit self-indulgent but here's the eulogy I gave at yesterday's funeral. You don't have to read it!

John Clark, 1930-2014

We are here today to mourn my father’s death but, more important, to celebrate his life and the miracle that he was with us for so long.

Almost 30 years ago, on the eve of my father’s first heart operation, my mother rang me. She told me the surgeon had warned her there was no guarantee he would survive the operation and, even if he did, he probably had no more than five years to live.

Well, he not only survived that first triple heart bypass operation. He survived two more bypass grafts and, 17 years ago, a heart transplant operation.

But let’s go back to the beginning, using notes my father wrote in anticipation of today’s service.

Philip Nigel John Clark was born on 5th July 1930. His father had been posted to India in the First World War and ten years later he persuaded the steel company he worked for to send him back there.

It was in India that my father’s lifelong interest in birds and natural history began. From the age of two, according to my grandparents, it was impossible to get him past the bird section at Calcutta Zoo.

The family later moved to Japan and then to China where he spent his first year of school.

He was six when the family returned to Sheffield and nine when war broke out. At King Edward VII Grammar School he studied Classics then switched to Science. He won a scholarship to Queen’s College Oxford where he read Chemistry.

During his finals in 1951 he infamously managed to set fire to himself in a practical exam for which he received no marks. Despite that he still managed to get a good degree.

In 1952 National Service caught up with him. He was selected to go to Eton Hall OTC. Three months later he led the passing out parade and was told by the general taking the parade he could have any posting he liked.

He chose the Far East, Middle East or Germany – and was sent to Cambridge, which taught him how much influence generals actually have.

Promotion to acting Captain enabled him to propose to a young lady he had met at a wedding in 1948. For the rest of his life he boasted he had met my mother on April 10th and married her on April 14th, omitting to mention the eight years in between.

After National Service he joined Nestle as a management trainee at the company’s large confectionary factory in Hayes, Middlesex. He spent ten years there with training stints in Switzerland, France, Germany and the USA until he was appointed assistant factory manager responsible for all the chocolate and confectionary production.

In 1965 he was transferred to Nestle's UK head office in Croydon – a three-hour round trip from the family home in Maidenhead.

In 1969 he was put in charge of two factories in Dundee and so we all headed north. A 90-minute daily commute to work was reduced to just 15 minutes, door-to-door, so you can see the attraction.

Unfortunately part of the brief was to shut down the main factory in the centre of the city with the loss of 1000 jobs. Although this was completed entirely through voluntary redundancy my father found it an extremely traumatic experience.

Despite this the next eight years were very happy ones for my parents.

My father was a founder member of the Rotary Club of North Fife and was president in 1976. He was also, for a time, chairman of the Dundee branch of the Scottish Ornithologists Club, and was an active member of the Tay Ringing Group. He also served on the Scottish Advisory Committee for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

In 1978 Nestle moved my father, against his will, to Cumbria. He was told to make a go of a factory at Milnthorpe near Kendal or shut it down. He kept it going so Nestle asked him to breathe new life into a factory in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

My father was factory manager at Ashbourne for eight years from 1979 until his second heart operation in 1987. During this time he was offered the manager’s job at Hayes, Nestles’ biggest UK factory, where he had started all those years ago.

This, he said, would have involved a return to the “overcrowded south” and he turned it down – fortunately, as it happens, because almost immediately his health broke down and he had to retire on medical grounds.

It was far from doom and gloom, though. For ten years until 1997 he acted as conservation officer for the Derbyshire Ornithological Society. He was also an active member of Ashbourne Rotary Club.

Between and even after his three heart operations, he and my mother travelled to many parts of the world – Canada, Australia, the West Indies, Kenya, Gambia and Vietnam. They made the most of the time they had together and created lots of wonderful memories.

My father felt he had been extremely lucky in life. He wrote that he had a “wonderfully happy marriage to a lovely lady who had devoted her whole life to caring for him and their two children”.

He had the security of working for one firm throughout his career but with the stimulation of doing a variety of jobs in a number of choice locations. They made good friends everywhere they lived and enjoyed their holidays abroad, in the course of which they made many new friends.

His four grandchildren – all of whom are here today – “were a further source of joy”. His words.

His faith in God was absolute so he had no fear of death. His only sadness, he used to say, was the prospect of leaving my mother on her own.

Well, that’s my father’s account of his life. Now I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own.

My father was known for many things. One of them, within the family at least, was his driving. He was a very good driver but not everyone appreciated the speed at which he went round corners.

My aunt Sue, for example, recalls a time when my father’s little Triumph “practically took off on two wheels” while she sat in the back turning whiter than white and clinging on while my mother begged him to go a bit slower. Sue adds that “Midge rather loved the speed but, kind as she has always been, was feeling sorry for me.”

Stories like that often get exaggerated with the passing of time but there must be some truth in it because an old school friend with whom I remain in regular contact often talks of the white knuckle rides my father used to give us en route to some football match or other. Apparently he still wakes up at night gripping the side of the bed and reaching for an imaginary seatbelt.

You might be surprised to know that bird watching can be dangerous too. Well, it was when my father was in charge. One year we went on holiday to the Shetland Isles – not for the sun, sea and sand, obviously. No, the aim, as far as I can remember, was to find a colony of terns on the smallest uninhabited island.

To get there we had to cross some quite choppy water in a very small boat. And my father failed to warn us that terns get a bit cross if their habitat is disturbed. What followed was like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

So my message to his grandchildren is this:

Please don’t drive like your grandpa and should you inherit his interest in bird watching never ever leave your own family in a hot car while you run off, leaping over hedges and ditches and across fields in pursuit of some lesser spotted grebe. Believe me, they won’t thank you for it.

I only have time for one more story, again courtesy of my aunt Sue.

Unbelievable as it sounds, my father spent the whole morning of his wedding day underneath the little car in which they were going on honeymoon. He was trying to fix some problem or other.

Having neither the time nor the inclination to eat lunch (a schoolboy error) my father came over all weak and wobbly at the alter and at the most important moment – the taking of vows – had to be revived while the entire congregation (including the bridesmaids) had to sit down and wait for his recovery.

Thankfully the groom recovered, the vows went ahead, and the couple lived happily ever after.

More seriously, my sister would agree (I think) that our parents have been a rock throughout our lives. My father would never offer advice unless it was sought, but he was always there to listen, if need be. He was non-judgemental and always supportive.

Now I don’t want this to sound like an Oscar acceptance speech but I know my parents were and are very grateful to many people for their wonderful support over many years. I won’t list them all but they include:

The transplant team at Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, the renal unit in Derby, and the many people – doctors, nurses and carers – who treated or looked after my father. Their care and consideration are very much appreciated.

Thanks to their efforts, my father’s determination to keep going, and of course the love and care of my mother, he enjoyed until relatively recently a pretty good quality of life.

I would like to finish by reading from a card sent to my father by his sister Sue a few days before he died. My mother read it to him and it sums up, rather beautifully I think, the sentiments many of us feel today:

"No-one could have a better brother that you have always been to me. I shall never forget the speech you made at my wedding which also won the hearts of so many of my friends.

"My interest in birds has undoubtedly been through you and I have many times lived in the glory of having a brother who was runner-up in the Bird Brain of Britain with Magnus Magnusson.

"You and Midge have lived with difficult times vis-à-vis health problems but between you you have triumphed over so many obstacles and we are so lucky to have had you with us for so long. Thirty years ago I would never have believed it possible. You are both amazing.

"Lastly, I hope you know that we will always be there for Midge and will make sure she has many happy times in the future which she so deserves."

The final word – and not for the first time – goes to my mother. We were speaking about my dad earlier this week and she told me:

“He gave us a master class in the way to die sweetly, patiently and bravely. He never complained night or day.”

He also died peacefully at home, which is what he wanted, with family and neighbours popping in to see him.

Thank you for coming today. On behalf of my mother, my sister Frances and all the family, I hope you will join us to continue our celebration in the village hall after this service.

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Reader Comments (8)

Dear Simon,
That was a most befitting tribute paid to your Father from such a loving and caring son . Uncannily your Father even had a feathered friend as a guest - what a lovely ending to his life .

Saturday, June 21, 2014 at 17:50 | Unregistered CommenterJean Reid

Yes, what a lovely report of the ceremony, and tribute to your father. Very encouraging for all of us.

Saturday, June 21, 2014 at 22:08 | Unregistered CommenterNorman Brand

Sometimes it can be difficult to be sure that a comment is appropriate. I feel sure that my own ability to cope with adversity was very much shaped by that of my parents. I hope that when I depart, my own children will do likewise. I feel sure that they will.

Saturday, June 21, 2014 at 23:47 | Unregistered CommenterJunican

My condolences to you and your family, Simon. My own father died not so many years back after a long period of ill health, so I know the rather confusing mixture of relief and sadness which such a passing brings. But what a lovely tribute to him from all of you – family, friends, neighbours, colleagues and acquaintances. You “dun ‘im proud!” And I’m sure the gatecrashing swallow was no coincidence …. !

Sunday, June 22, 2014 at 3:11 | Unregistered CommenterMisty

My condolences, too, Simon. What a comforting way for your father to go, at home, surrounded by friends and family. He sounds as if he was a lovely man, an opinion evidently shared by many.

Sunday, June 22, 2014 at 12:40 | Unregistered CommenterJoyce

Sorry for your loss Simon - condolences to you and your family.

Sunday, June 22, 2014 at 13:51 | Unregistered CommenterSunex Amures

Simon sorry to hear this, my condolences.

Monday, June 23, 2014 at 2:22 | Unregistered CommenterGary Rogers

Thanks for your comments.

Monday, June 23, 2014 at 8:40 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

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