The Press Saturday, October 24th 1998
Funerals, even more than weddings, are a chance for the Church to offend potential Christians. The rules governing tombstones are a regular source of conflict; perhaps it is intrinsically wrong to try and impose standards of taste on other people's grief which is always, from a sufficient distance, tasteless. So it was interesting to find in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine, an enthusiastic article on the art of carving tombstones by Maureen Cleave, which concentrated on the search of Harriet Frazer, whose step-daughter killed herself at the age of 26, for a fitting memorial. "When she died, I discovered that the deeply bereaved are in a new land. I had never heard of a monumental mason. I looked one up in the Yellow Pages, and when I got there, there were carpets and gladioli in a vase and a woman behind a desk. I was as though death did not exist. I tried to explain to her what Soph was like and she said, "Ah, you'll be wanting E2218 in our catalogue."
The diocese (Norwich) would not allow Sophie's family to place a poem of her own on the tombstone and they did not feel prepared to fight their case through a court. "We have grown wary of emotion on tombstones . 'We live [Harriet Frazer] said, 'in an age of anything goes. But in the churchyard so-called good taste often denies humanity or feeling' she fought to have a woman's pet name on her headstone. 'she was born when the poppies were out, so they called her Poppy. In the end she was buried with a name she was never known by. Once people are squashed into rules they can't express themselves. If you see 'Our dear Nan' on a tombstone it gives you a clear picture of this nice, warm woman'."
But instead of leaving the point there as a whinge, she goes on to suggest a book of approved Christian imagery useful for those who want to get round the regulations. It did not, however, mention one difficulty, which has provoked a lawsuit after a tragic incident in the graveyard of St Peter's Arthington, near Leeds. A story in the main body of the paper recounts how The PCC there decided that a gardener was too expensive, and brought some sheep instead. This was to overlook an important factor: gardeners, no matter how badly paid, do not often eat the flowers they tend, whereas sheep find wreaths make an savoury change from grass. The family of Betty White, who was 71 when she died, is trying to sue the church after the 25 floral tributes left around her grave were all eaten in a day. "All that remained were ribbons, cards, wrapping, and bits of flowers and stalks. Droppings were scattered around the grave." The family were further disturbed by the fact that the chewed wreaths had cost £700
The dead woman's son asked the vicar, the Rev Denys de la Hoyde, to replace the flowers, but he refused, saying that the sheep would only eat them again. He did offer to put a spray of flowers in the church, where they would not be eaten, but by this time feelings were running high. "Mr White said, 'why should they beautify their church as recompense?'"
The same issue of the magazine contained a long and extremely favourable profile of Mother Teresa's successor, Nirmal Hriday, by Mick Brown, who had looked around her homes for himself. "A small boy, his face horribly scarred, tugs at my hand, refusing to let go. He has fallen on a fire. 'Will he go home?' I ask a sister. 'Perhaps', she shrugs, 'this child is street people' — the inference being that his mother will never come, or never be found, that his life has taken an irreversible course.
"It is in these homes that both the magnitude of Mother Teresa's accomplishments and her enormous humility, becomes most vivid. Here, the fact that she took money from dictators or criminals seems of small consequence. What better use for their money?"
In fact, God had a really good run in the Sunday Telegraph. Jonathan Petre, who seems to rise and fall inside the organisation like a hailstorm in a thundercloud, had the splash with yet another leak from the House of Bishops' report on the remarriage of divorcees. This one was headlined "Church closes the door to remarriage of adulterers" — which one would not have thought was news. It has never been suggested that anyone who wanted to get remarried in church will be able to, under the new arrangements; only those of whom the priest approves. If they happen to be members of the Royal Family, so much the better.
He also had a wonderful story about the Archbishop's Council and how it is meant to have "helicopter vision" of the future. this was treated in completely cliché'd fashion: "a top-level 'vision' statement outlining the long-term strategy of the Church of England has" — wait for it — "alarmed traditionalists". But it frightens me too. Modern marketing and management theory is based on slavish power-worship. Is that really the principle on which a church should organise its affairs?
Finally, some good news for Bill Clinton. I don't want to burden the editor with more letters from Scientology's lawyers, so I shall tell it with as straight a face as I can. The News of the World informs us that John Travolta has written to the President enclosing "books and other literature" about the cult. "Travolta, 44, is convinced that the teachings of the sect founded by science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard could help the President cling to office.
""He has also invited home to meet top church officials. So far, Clinton, a life-long Baptist, has not accepted the invitation, but is said to be reading the material." I'm sure there's a great deal to ponder on in this literature, whether book shaped or otherwise. Hubbard learnt much about marriage from the four wives he had in his most recent lifetime.