A celebration of the life of Evelyn MacArthur, 1935 – 2014

I’m not often asked to conduct memorial ceremonies, which is a shame because when they’re like Evelyn’s, they’re truly wonderful. Evelyn chose to donate her body to medical science, so the family invited literally hundreds of friends to join them at The Cornhill Hotel near Biggar, where I, her brother Gordon, her son Gordon and her granddaughter Alex Rae told the story of her life, with musical accompaniment from her nephew Nicol MacLaren, who played (as Evelyn herself had requested) the traditional air Durisdeer, on her late husband Alex’s beloved Hohner accordion.

As I said in my introduction, “…she planned her death as she planned her life, and rather than take the conventional route via the graveyard or the crematorium, she donated her body to medical science, so that she could continue to be of use to others: few of us have that courage and clear-sightedness, but as you will hear, Evelyn had both of those qualities in abundance.”

Evelyn was indeed a very independent lady who’d lived a remarkable life. Married to a well known Scottish musician and bandleader, Alex MacArthur, she’d already raised a family, run a couple of hotels and become a grandmother before Alex’s early death at 59, whereupon she reinvented herself as a tour guide, and for the rest of her life travelled the world, “pushing other wrinklies on and off buses” as she self-deprecatingly put it. Sadly I didn’t get to meet her in person, but I met her daughter Fiona, her son Gordon and her friend and bridge partner Cathy who told me lots of wonderful stories about her life and times.

The atmosphere was very different from that of a funeral. For a start we were in a hotel function room, and everyone was seated at a table, so it felt more like a family get together. The atmosphere was very relaxed, and we were able to take all the time we needed to talk about Evelyn without the pressure of knowing we only had half an hour in which to say everything we could before having to make way for the next ceremony, as is the case at a crematorium. 

Yes, there were tears, but what was much more noticeable were the smiles on peoples’ faces, as we reminded them of the person who’d been such an important part of all of their lives. Speaking about someone you love is hard at any age, so it was inspiring to hear a tribute from her youngest grandchild Alex Rae who’s only eleven: that takes great courage.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the family hadn’t specifically invited anyone to the ceremony: Fiona had simply put notices up in the local newsagents’ windows letting it be known what was happening where and when and saying that all were welcome. That so many turned up was yet further testimony to Evelyn’s standing in the community. Evelyn really did love her home in 
Biggar, where she derived great pleasure from looking out at the lowland hills every day.  

Fiona kindly sent me this note of thanks, along with the collages of photos of Evelyn that decorated every table. 

Dear Tim,
I would like to take this opportunity to personally thank you for having guided our assembled company of friends and family through a wonderful resume of the life of my mother, Evelyn MacArthur. 
Your tribute was way more than an abbreviated summation; a list of facts punctuated by dates. It was the real, true and poignant story of a person’s life told with candour, humour  and compassion. 
Your flawless delivery of your beautifully written tribute brought Mum right into the room. As one of my cousins said ‘I expected Auntie Evelyn to stand up and speak herself!’ 
Thanks, entirely to you, all who came to say goodbye to the Evelyn they already knew and loved left knowing her so much better.
Heartfelt thanks, Fiona

I have to say I am deeply touched, and just very glad that I was able to be of some assistance to Evelyn’s family and friends. Thank you, Fiona and the rest of Clan Evelyn!

PS – I forgot to say that if you are interested in donating your body to science, you might want to check out what’s involved here – it’s the Body Donation page from the University of Edinburgh. Or read this article by Peter Ross in Scotland on Sunday

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