The last waltz
Neil Pickford considers a virger’s role in different services
I must start with an apology – last week I promised I would introduce you to the mysterious world of Car Park Johnny, the avenging angel of Beverley but I’m afraid that will have to wait for another column.
Instead, for a variety of reasons I’ve been thinking about funerals recently which, let’s be honest, isn’t an obvious source of chuckles.
That’s not to say that there isn’t humour in death – and not always black humour either – but that’s not really the way my muse has been moving. It’s more a form of re-examining just what it is that I, as a virger, am doing at such ceremonies.
It’s actually something I can think about clearly because I don’t do many funerals. The Minster isn’t like a crematorium where they’re pushing the parties though at strictly scheduled intervals, with the next hearse drawing up before the previous ones has pulled away. In the Minster I might go several months without being on duty for one, then have three in as many weeks. Few enough to make sure that each one is an ‘event’ but quite enough to draw some overall conclusions.
The main observation is that every single one of them is different – and that’s not just politeness talking, but an honest conclusion. Each one is subtly unique, even if they follow a similar format.
Firstly, for those who don’t know, in Beverley Minster we always have a virger, formally dressed and carrying our trusty virge, to lead the coffin in and out at funerals. It’s a sign of respect to the deceased and the mourners who are present and I suppose it demonstrates that the whole structure of the church is there for them at this critical time.
Mind you, I suspect most people probably just think I’m a pantomime figure, provided by the undertakers to add a touch of ceremony to the occasion.
Of course my presence in the procession is also a throwback to the time when I and my trusty virge would have to batter a way through the throng for my charge of priests and mourners.
In another throwback to the pre-Reformation church I will have already changed the background colours to the ceremony. Whenever we have a funeral we put up purple frontals – the cloths that decorate the front of the altar or the bench where the priest sits. This colour represents both death and glory – Roman emperors wore purple – and is a surviving remnant of the times when, at vast expense, an entire church would be decked in black cloth to mark the funeral of an important local figure.
Back in the days of Henry VIIth, when the murdered 4th Duke of Northumberland was formally buried in Beverley Minster the family was ordered by the King himself to lavish a fortune on visiting and decorating a great many churches en route between their castle at Leconfield and his final resting place. The task was so great that what is normally a three mile journey took two days and severely weakened the family finances for a generation (which was Henry’s plan in the first place, as it happens).
Coming back to the present: following the arrival of the coffin I may still need to coordinate with others to make sure the right music is playing at the proper time and that the doors and curtains are opened and closed when appropriate. Then that’s it – I think that this is the ceremony where I am supposed to be most truly faceless – a sympathetic, helpful but completely anonymous piece of the scenery.
If, at the end of the service, everything has gone smoothly and no one has really noticed my presence then I’ve probably done the best job that I possibly could.
I have no complaints about this, and the greatest sympathy instead for anyone who has to stand up and lead the service. I’m satisfied with just doing my job, being involved without really being there, if you know what I mean.
After all, the pressures of standing at the front during a funeral can be intense. I suspect that anyone leading a funeral, who has any degree of empathy for the individuals involved will spend a great deal of time considering exactly what to say. At the very least they are attempting the huge tasks of bringing some sense, peace and closure to distressed people – planting a seed of readjustment to life without their loved one while helping them to create a good memory that will live on. Sometimes they are dealing with the aftermath of tragedy – a life cut short – and this will often fill the church. In such circumstances a wide range of people feel involved and, sometimes, even angry with God over the death and see their attendance at the funeral as a kind of protest.
They are hugely tricky affairs for the priest who has to try and find the right touch for both the intimate family and the wider public. Given the different circumstances and personalities involved this becomes a highly charged event where the simplest word can create a disproportionate reaction among individuals. That’s why the peroration is so important.
At the other extreme are the real life ‘Eleanor Rigby’ funerals – you know: “Eleanor died and was buried along with her name. Nobody came.” I really feel for the person who has to construct a summary of their life from minute doses of information: “This person was born, they married someone who died a long time ago and now they’ve died as well. They liked playing tiddlywinks and once went on holiday to Scotland.”
It’s not the fault of the priest – any immediate family might be dead, that’s all the home had picked up about them from conversations with staff, and former neighbours probably didn’t know about the death in time to add any information to this pitifully small list.
But in the Church we don’t believe that death is the end – we believe in eternal life and also that every soul is equal in Heaven. That’s why, regardless of their background, at a Minster funeral they will still get a full service with purple frontals, hymns, a reading and address, prayers and even a virger to escort them in and out.
Because they’re worth it.
First published July 2010