St Mildred’s Church in Canterbury was packed full for a celebration of the life of a great friend of mine, Denise Rigden. And in honour of a woman who almost every day wore party dresses, fancy shoes and a flower in her hair, the invitation had been for us to dress as if coming to a wedding.
Denise was a local woman, born in Whitstable in 1947, and her beloved family were there at the funeral, together with many past and present members of L’Arche, where Denise had lived since 1999, making her home at ‘Rainbow’, one of the L’Arche houses in Canterbury. It was at Rainbow the evening before that lots of Denise’s family and friends had gathered to see the body and to pray, sing and tell stories: a L’Arche tradition. Tuulliki told of how she and Denise had been part of a holiday group to Scotland one year and when Denise’s (very heavy) suitcase was opened at the destination it was found to be completely filled with magazines (waiting to be cut up, one of Denise’s favourite past-times)! James told of how it had emerged after several years that Denise had been bringing a cup of tea every morning to Yvonne, one of her housemates. It was only found out when Yvonne complained about being woken up each day at 5am! It showed the very caring side of Denise, which expressed itself even in her dying days when she was constantly asking about the ‘ill’ lady in her hospital ward.
I was very fond of Denise. During the years when I was based in the L’Arche offices in Barfreston we didn’t see one another very often but whenever we did, Denise would shriek with delight. I was also one of only two men in the world (the other being her brother in law Mike) that she called by their actual name. Most other men were referred to as John, or occasionally a nickname. Denise’s niece Fiona shared at the funeral how her then boyfriend Phil was given the name ‘tall boy’. And that was what Denise had always called him! I was very touched whenever Denise called me by my name, and she would often follow it up with a request (partly made in very effusive sign language) to come to my house for a cup of tea. How could I refuse! We had a little routine going over the years: drive to my house, tea and cake, then sometimes watch ‘Mamma Mia’. What fun we had.
I was delighted to be asked to join the music group at the funeral (and we made a great sound that Denise would have loved), also to sing a song I’d written for Denise one year for her birthday: When I See Your Face
I’ve written a lot in my blogs about unexpected and amazing connections. As Yim Soon and I were getting our car from the car park to drive to the crematorium who should we bump into but a man we had met while walking on the Camino in Spain last year (how wacky is that!). And then at the crematorium how fitting it was for us to finish by singing ’I watch the sunrise’. I was reminded of an Irish Chaplaincy Staff Away Day that had taken place a year ago at the Sisters of Mercy Retirement community in Clacton on Sea. One of our lovely volunteers, Moira, is a member of the congregation and had warmly welcomed us there, fed us abundantly and introduced us to some of the elderly sisters. We ended the day by celebrating mass together in their beautiful chapel and I’d chosen as the final hymn ‘I watch the sunrise’. It was explained to me afterwards that the song had been written at that very place by John Glynn, when he’d been on retreat and had been able to look out at the sea and the sky in the various times of the day. And as we think of Denise and of all our loved ones who have died, the last verse of the song is especially poignant:
“I watch the sunset, fading away,
Lighting the clouds and sea.
And as the evening, closes its eyes,
I feel your presence near me.”