I Never Knew…

16 April 2021

By The Ven David Gunn-Johnson

After almost 40 years I still remember the very first funeral I took. The service was to be Book of Common Prayer, at the graveside with no service in church. Very traditional. What could possibly go wrong? Well my training vicar was on holiday. It was a funeral for the parish up the hill and their vicar was on holiday. I was sure I could cope… probably. It would have been fine if the churchyard grass had not been over metre high and if the Funeral Director had known where the grave was. Nevertheless we managed after a fashion. The brother of the departed, completely ignoring his brother’s wishes, had given a short eulogy at the graveside. It was then that I heard something that I have heard many times since. A close relative said, “I never knew he had done all that.”

At my mother’s funeral a cousin who had known her a decade before I was born said, “I never knew her middle name was Winifred.” How often do we discover something about a person only to wish we had known it earlier and perhaps have valued them more as a result.

All of that train of thought was sparked off by the death of the Duke of Edinburgh as I found myself echoing that which I had so often heard: “I never knew…”

The story of his childhood was particularly moving. A grandfather assassinated, his father exiled, his mother in a sanatorium, his sister Celia, on the point of giving birth, killed with all her family in a plane crash, his remaining sisters marrying in a short space of time and leaving him to fend for himself. Prince Philip, reflecting on that part of his life once asked, “What do you expect me to have turned out like?” Well what did turn out was a man who stood head and shoulders above others of his generation and who took his early pain and turned it into strength. Had I troubled to know more of the man I should have valued him the more in life and not let it wait upon his death.

Of course this is the time for praise and thanksgiving and for dwelling upon all the good that Prince Philip did. Let that continue. Let it be our response as individuals and as a nation. Sadly it will not be long before those who believe that ‘good’ is not exciting and that ‘nice’ is not news begin highlighting his faults which, and I say it with loyal affection, were there for all to see.

When that happens, and it will, I shall remind myself of the lesson taught by all those funerals and thanksgiving services. Often the goodness in the heart of a person goes unnoticed, the kindness of their lives is kept hidden, the blessing they have been to others lost to view. It is up to we who remain to tell the story of the goodness we have found, the kindness we have seen and the blessing shared so that those who might otherwise have said in lament, “I never knew…” can say instead, “I am glad to have been told…” And perhaps it would be good not to wait for a funeral to do it.

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