It’s easy to forget that our lives are getting longer. The average life expectancy when I was born in the 1950’s was 65: now men can expect to live to 78 and women a further four years, to 82. And most deaths come at the end of a long life: they may be sad, they may come after illness, but they’re not unexpected. Bob’s death at the age of just 60 wasn’t like that.
Bob was one of those people who crammed a lot of living into his time. He was a walker, who’d climbed almost half of our 282 Munros; he played golf, he played tennis, he cycled, he coached his ‘wee mincers’ at football (Bob’s word for anything that was less than perfect was ‘mince’), he was a craftsman who could turn a tree into a bookcase, and of course he was a loving husband to Marion and an inspiring father to Laura and Liam, both of whom have inherited his unique combination of artistic, intellectual and practical skills.
Bob loved his life, he loved his work, and he wasn’t planning to go any time soon: he had everything to look forward to when he suffered a fatal heart attack while playing his regular Tuesday evening game of Squash at the end of September. It hardly needs saying that his tragic death came as a terrible shock, not only to his family but to his hundreds of colleagues and friends who packed Seafield Crematorium so densely that they were standing three deep both behind the catafalque and in the waiting room.
As a celebrant, what can you say at a time like this? After a lot of thought, these are the words I chose.
So there’s no getting away from it – this is a very sad day. If you’ve been to a humanist funeral before, you may know they’re often described as “a celebration of the life that has been lived”, but today, to be honest, the shock of Bob’s death is so recent, and the pain of your grief so raw, that the word “celebration” seems a bit trite; a bit crass even. But then again, Bob wouldn’t have wanted you to sit there with long faces. That just wasn’t his style – at all. So we’ll do our best, and in the midst of our deep sorrow, let’s take this opportunity to remember a man who lived a good, full on life, who had never been happier, and for whom the best was yet to come.
Marion told me lots of wonderful stories about their family life, from which I composed my tribute, but we also hear from two of Bob’s friends and colleagues, Ian and Gordon, who gave us another facet of his character: Bob, the Civil Engineer. Their contributions were wryly funny, but for anyone like me who didn’t know his work they were also genuinely eye-opening.
Bob had a long career, and during it, he’d worked on most of the major infrastructure projects that have been built in Scotland during my lifetime. So many of the roads I’ve driven along and bridges I’ve crossed were designed at least in part by him; he really did, literally shape the land in which we live. As Ian said, to have had any one of those projects on your CV would have been good, but to have had all of them was truly exceptional.
The hardest bit for me was reading the last poem. Actually it’s not really a poem so much as the lyrics from a song called The Joy Of Living which was written by the great Ewan MacColl : you can read them in full here. Perhaps because I too have walked some of these hills, these words bring a lump to my throat every time I read them, but it seemed the right way to say goodbye to Bob.
Farewell you Northern Hills, you mountains all, goodbye:
Moorland and stony ridges, crags and peaks, goodbye.
Gylder Fach farewell, Cul Beig, Scafell, cloud bearing Suilven.
Sun-warmed rock and the cold of Bleaklow’s frozen sea –
The snow and the wind and the rain on hills and mountains.
Days in the sun and the tempered wind and the air like wine,
And you drink and you drink till you’re drunk on the joy of living.
Marion sent me the wonderful artwork that Liam designed for his dad’s Order of Ceremony, along with this note.
Thank you so much for yesterday, it was just perfect. You touched my heart and many others too.
The ceremony was so just right for Bob and you gave him the perfect send off… I will be eternally grateful to you for that. You are gifted at what you do and I am so pleased to have had you take the service for us. The whole experience was very comforting and I will take strength from the readings and prose that you so aptly chose for Bob… I just wish you could have met him.
What I didn’t tell you was that Liam has crafted a casket for his Dad’s ashes. He worked on it all week in the garage and it is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. I am so proud of our children and so comforted by the traits and qualities I see in them that are so Bob.
Everyone who attended made a special mention to me how special they thought you and the ceremony were yesterday….. and you have left many lasting memories in many peoples’ hearts.
With my very best regards and appreciation
I have to say I wish I had met Bob too, but in a way, through what Marion told me and what I heard about him from his friends, I feel I did. It was a privilege to have been a part of his farewell.