Yesterday, on Wednesday the 12th of February 2020, I gave the eulogy at the funeral of my Father, Michael Anthony Peoples, usually known as Mick (1941-2020). He was 78.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve done, whether people could tell or not, but it was an honour to do so. I didn’t record it at the time. I had thought that I might, but at the time I was just focused on keeping it together and trying to help the service run smoothly, so it escaped my attention. It would have felt strange to record it now and share that recording. For those who would like to read what I said, I have reproduced it below. I hope it goes without saying that this was not a talk given to a room full of scholars, or even a sermon preached to my fellow parishioners (although I certainly took the opportunity to share some small insights in the short time I had). It was a talk given to Dad’s grieving family who had come to say goodbye, for now at least, by one of them. I share it here for those who wanted a copy of what I said, and for those who might have liked to attend but were not able (and for anyone who is curious).
I have not shared a photo of my father here, as I do not usually share photos of family in public places. My Facebook account is limited to my Facebook friends.
The eulogy was as follows.
There’s something quite daunting about being bumped up the generational ladder to the top level. It leaves one feeling rather exposed. So if Mick’s siblings wouldn’t mind terribly much, feel free to stick around for a while.
I suspect you all know as well as I do that there are things about my father’s life that we wish had been different, and in no small part they were his own doing. They have shaped the lives and well-being of his children. He taught me, whether intentionally or otherwise (because most of the lessons we teach our children we teach them unintentionally, while they watch us) many good things, but the most life-changing thing that he taught me as I entered adulthood was the value of forgiveness and letting go. It is because I learned that lesson that I was able to appreciate the other lessons that were there if I was willing to see them: The virtue of working hard, of old-fashioned decency and propriety most of the time, the value of having a sense of humour, the value of not putting up with nonsense – which by the way is a virtue as Dad would have assured you. And there were other lessons – “Very good” means anything from “that’s not awful” to “that’s completely wonderful.” “We’ll see what happens” means “yes, of course.” “Jeeeez” means “I can’t say what I want to say right now as there are children present.” He didn’t teach me everything, though. There are ways of being a man, a husband and a father that I chose not to inherit from him. You do not have to be cursed by the mistakes of your parents, you certainly do not have to repeat them, and it is never helpful to replay them and let them consume you. As we lay my father to rest, make sure that you lay to rest any outstanding accounts you have with him.
As easy as it is to reflect on how things could have been for Dad later in life, there is a silver lining to it, and if you don’t like me talking about his Catholic faith, well that’s unfortunate. Dad agreed with me.
Dad’s son is a theologian and an Anglican (sorry Dad), so the following example suggested itself to me. Not quite 500 years ago as King Henry VIII lay dying, as Dad did recently, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, rushed to be at his side, as I did recently. Henry had lost the powers of speech, and because Thomas cared for his eternal well-being, he took him by the hand and asked him to assure him that he trusted in Christ – to give him a sign. Henry opened his eyes and squeezed his hand, before finally closing his eyes. It wasn’t much, but Thomas loved his king and could not let him pass from this life without checking.
Well I’m not the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Dad certainly wasn’t Henry VIII, thank God. His wife might have found him hard to live with at times, as did we all, but she managed keep her head. Dad was never the sort of person to be outspoken about his faith, and if you were, he would privately roll his eyes and exclaim, “Jeez, those happy clappy sorts.” But he and I had something in common with Thomas and Henry. I know that there were things that Dad carried with him that did not serve him well. He harboured a deep unhappiness about his marriage, and about the departure of his family from his Church, and these did not always manifest in the prettiest of ways. There was always the fear for me that resentment would drive him to give up on faith in God altogether. But because I loved him and cared for his eternal well-being, I don’t think there was a time when I saw him when I didn’t ask – do you still believe? Do you still know this to be true? He wouldn’t have taken kindly to me getting fanatical about it. His was a formal, quiet, but consistent faith – exactly the way religion should be, as he saw things. When I saw Dad, less than few weeks ago, it was no different, and I was not going to let him pass from this life without checking. I said to him, “This is important, I need to check up on you. Do you still believe?” “Oh yeah, yeah, I do.” He didn’t mind my asking. The last time I saw him in his room at the rest home, when he spoke about the fact that his time is short, but really death is coming for us all – a healthy perspective I’ve inherited from him – I reminded him, “that’s true, but you know you have forever.” He nodded very seriously as though reminding himself and coming to his senses, “Yes, that’s right.” It wasn’t anything elaborate, although it was more than a squeeze of the hand.
God knows how little we have to offer, because he knows our frailty. For Dad’s sake and my own, and yours for that matter, I am beyond grateful that God accepts our small token of faith and meagre, broken, imperfect obedience, and receives us into his Kingdom not because of our impressive performance (or both Dad and I would be in a world of trouble), but simply out of mercy.
Every time he attended Mass, my father, with the Church throughout the ages, would profess his faith in the words of the Creed – “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” This doesn’t have to be the last you see of him. Dad was right to reflect on the fact that he wasn’t the only one in his position. The day is coming for us all, and if there is a chance, any chance, that this is not the end and there is a way to receive the life of the world to come, that chance commends itself to you as the most important thing that we could ever consider. The only guaranteed time you have when you may do so is now.
In more recent years, and especially the last few months, whenever I have thought about Dad’s foibles, about the habits within him that have done him so much harm over the years (not that I thought of them often, for there is little point in that), about the things he carried with him that weighed him down, I have also made myself remember not only the good that managed to shine through in the here and now – and there was plenty of it – but also the fact that these things are not permanent features of my father. I made myself remember these words that he confessed and knew, however quietly at times, to be true. “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” We have not seen the best of Mick yet. But I do look forward to it.