In villages the size of the ones I minister funerals are not exactly rare, nor are they frequent. We've a had a couple of really tragic funerals lately, and in the time I have been ministering in this area we've seen a number of such funerals. The bereavement ministry we offer on the whole, though, is what most would consider 'natural' deaths - often at the end of a long life. On the whole these funerals aren't considered in the same way to be tragic, though every death is heartbreaking and - to quote the Revd Ken Howard of Curb your Dogma - 'death sucks'. However, there is a kind of creeping tragedy coming over many of our rural communities - with a number of deaths over the past couple of years we have lost some real village 'characters' - people who had in their time significant influence on these communities.
We've lost old time poachers, and those who worked on the land, members of our Church communities, even a few of the much loved village oddballs. Taken individually these may not seem anything unusual and all a part of the natural cycle of birth, life and death, but in total these deaths are part of a loss of character in these communities. There aren't quite the same characters coming up through the younger generations, and perhaps its an ironic reflection of our so-called 'individualistic' age that there is a sense of homogeneity creeping over our villages.
Part of the explanation is financial - those moving into our communities are, on the most part, better off, often dual earning 'middle class' families. The only way anyone can afford to live in most of the properties is to have a certain level of income and many of those born and raised in the villages are having to move to the estates of nearby towns in order to afford housing. Part of the explanation is that people expect a certain type of 'rural idyll' which often involves being a spectator rather than a participant in village life. I am sure that changing social structures are a part of it too, as people no longer communicate and become friends with neighbours, or affiliate themselves with local clubs and organisations, or with churches to the same degree. There are very few local shops or amenities so people get into their cars and drive everywhere. People go on line, or watch TV, or invite a few carefully chosen friends for 'dinner parties' - the pubs are struggling and local groups find fewer and fewer people participating.
This paints a pretty bleak picture of village life and that wasn't my intention when i started. I do feel we are losing a generation who made our communities alive and vibrant, without seeing them being replaced and it feels in many ways that this is a symptom of a certain community malaise. There are signs of hope, and where people are drawn into our churches we are finding a vibrancy and a life which is having a positive effect on many of our villages. I myself try to offer my own particular brand of 'being me' which involves me being unlike many people's stereotypical expectations of a clergyperson!
It does strike me that if we are to keep our communities alive as communities then people need to actually make an effort to be a part of the life of our villages, to be open to one another, to support local events. There are glimmers of this starting to happen, and the Church in all but two of my villages is an important part of this - but that's another story.