Kind, personal and Biblical ... why address at William Dunlop’s funeral was perfect
Many thousands of words have been written and spoken about the untimely death of the road racer William Dunlop, but it is something that is unspeakable, and literally beyond words.
The awful tragedy is that road racing is unforgiving as well as exhilarating, and that death or serious injury are always in the background.
The other harsh reality is that when all the tributes have been paid, and when the reporters and television cameras have faded away, it is William’s partner Janine and little daughter Ella, and the wider family, who will have to deal with this numbing grief for the rest of their lives. Our hearts go out to them.
William’s funeral service this week was moving and dignified, and my thoughts were also with the Rev John Kirkpatrick, who officiated.
He has the unique and unenviable record of officiating also at the funeral services of those other huge road racing figures, William’s father Robert and uncle Joey, who also died in similarly tragic circumstances.
Mr Kirkpatrick’s funeral address for William was a model of its kind.
It was personal, eloquent, compassionate and deeply Biblical.
At such a time of deep loss and emotion, a Christian service can bring great comfort in the midst of darkness.
However, that is not to decry other religious funeral services. Each person has his or her own way of seeking comfort in the midst of grief.
Sadly, however, some Christian funeral services are not in the least comforting. There are still ministers who use the occasion to preach hell-fire sermons and to berate a captive audience.
I heard of one such funeral which was held recently in rural Ulster where the preacher gloried in his temporary power to be heard and criticised everyone but himself.
This is the kind of thing which gives the Churches such a bad name, but people should not put up with it. I am at a stage where I make my views known quietly to a preacher afterwards and there is nothing wrong with dissent expressed in the right way.
Sadly, Ulster people do not speak their mind to the clergy, but even worse they simply vote with their feet by leaving the Church completely. No wonder the numbers are dropping, though there are many other reasons for this as well.
The delivery of a funeral address is not easy and we often tend to underestimate what it takes out of the speaker.
I have delivered several addresses at the funerals of family members, neighbours and friends, and I found it a great challenge and responsibility as well as a privilege to pay personal and collective tribute to the person who died.
So often at funerals we discover, to our surprise or shame, that we are learning something new that is beautiful, impressive and inspiring about the person we thought we knew.
I recall a former member of my own church called Bert whom I visited regularly, but it was only at his funeral that I heard that he had been one of the first British soldiers to liberate Belsen concentration camp. He had never told me about it.
There is also a dark humour about this whole subject. One day I was phoned by a man who had recently heard me pay tribute at Roselawn crematorium to a deceased friend.
He said: “You spoke very well. My mate died today, could you speak for him?” I had to tell my caller gently that it does not work like that. It is better to have known the person well before you speak at his or her funeral.
Sadly funerals, like death and taxes, are among the certainties in our lives, and the older you get the more frequent they become. On such an occasion you and I, and the family in particular, don’t need to be preached at.
What we need above all is thanksgiving and recognition for the life of the deceased, as well as comfort and inspiration from the Scriptures, and the deep reassurance that death indeed has no sting, and that the grave has no victory.
Tragic loss: mourners gather as the coffin of William Dunlop (left top) is carried into Garryduff Presbyterian Church. Left bottom, his partner Janine and mother Louise. Below, Rev John Kirkpatrick