On Monday September 2nd I attended a funeral of a friend of many years Andrea O’Neill and it was called ‘A Celebration and Thanksgiving for the Life of Andrea O’Neill’. I had known her for years as her son was in the same school year as Cathy. She was only just 65 years old and had led a very healthy and active life, enjoying dancing, fell walking and my abiding memory of her is walking hand in hand with her husband David with a ready smile on her face. The later years of her life were a struggle as she had developed M.E. so had many times off work as a special needs teacher until her retirement in 2008. She did not drink or smoke and ate an organic healthy diet but died of Oesophageal Cancer!
Andrea had planned the service to make it a celebration and thanksgiving and did not want people to mourn, though the loss for David, Stephen and Ruth will be incalculable as she has been their mainstay and support all her life. As Ruth had dyslexia and learning difficulties Andrea worked hard to support her through school and post school training; the result is a happily married young woman who although suffering as her mother with M.E. manages with care, a part time cleaning job of 16 hours in a care home. Andrea set up a group to support parents of disabled children and continued to be a part of it all her life. She also supported her son Stephen who struggled with Asperger’s Syndrome, although he got a degree with his father’s encouragement too, but still has challenges in his life.
As we came into St Mark’s Church we were invited to place a posy of flowers on a rattan plate on the font, as Andrea loved flowers. Her flower covered coffin was brought in to the accompaniment of the music, ‘Sheep may safely graze.’ The minister Guy welcomed us to the celebration and led the opening prayers. Andrea had loved the outdoors and her garden and her faith, so the hymn she chose was most appropriate; ‘O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder consider all the works thy hand has made.’
Guy then drew together family thoughts giving thanks for her life. He said that she had given many instructions to make the occasion joyful and celebratory and he had never before led such a funeral. She was the third sister, her elder sisters being Bernice and Olga and she had a younger brother Julian who was born when she was about 10. She was always involved in her older sisters’ adventures from a very young age, notably being pulled up a steep hill to their special hideout as the older siblings had responsibility for her. When Julian was 3 or 4, Andrea then 13, took the education of her brother seriously teaching to read d-o-g and c-a-t and for years read to him from her favourite adventure stories such as Biggles. She always wanted to fly aeroplanes as he had done, but had no real option, so made do with reading and re-reading them and instilling the same love in her younger brother. She always cared and supported anyone in trouble. She met and married David in Leeds in March 1978 and they moved to Harrogate in 1985 to the same area my late first husband Stephen and I had moved 3 years previously. She was a devoted Christian all her life and attended St Mark’s Church for years. She never complained about her struggles or the final illness but instead right to the end she was more concerned about others and how they would cope. She died peacefully in St Michael’s Hospice surrounded by her family, having been faithfully and lovingly cared for at home by David until a few days before that.
We then sang ‘To God be the glory, great things he has done’ another carefully chosen hymn. Her elder sister Bernice read a poem; ‘ Abou Ben Adheim’ by James Henry Leigh Hunt, followed by her brother Julian reading ‘Uphill’ by Christina Rossetti. David then read verses from 1 Corinthians 15 and Olga read verses from John 14; both of which looked forward to the resurrection hope. Guy in his address described how important these passages were for Andrea and that he saw her regularly in the last weeks of her life, feeling more uplifted by her faith and radiance than ministering to her needs. It said that it was at the end of life that you really get to know a person and she was an example of steadfast faith and courage till the end.
Jan, another friend and mother of children of similar ages to mine, danced with Andrea in her Scottish dancing group, and was especially asked by Andrea to do a dance at her funeral. For Jan it was very hard to do that and up till the last minute was unsure whether she would be able to join in the dance interpretation ‘Lord of the Dance’ but did manage to in the service as Andrea had wanted.
Olivia a retired minister from St Marks led the prayers whilst Andrea’s children lit candles for each section. Stephen lit a candle after the prayer of thanksgiving for her life. Ruth lit a candle after another prayer and her husband Paul lit a candle for hope in the future. It was as moving as the dance.
We then sang the wonderful resurrection hymn ‘Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son; endless is the victory, thou o’er death hast won.’ Andrea had also had a lifelong long love of classical music and asked her niece Anna, Bernice’s daughter, a trumpet player, to play ‘The trumpet shall sound,’ which reflected the reading from 1 Corinthians 15. When I spoke to her afterwards said that it was very courageous of her, she had found it a challenge but could not let her aunt down. It was a joyful and hopeful experience hearing that lovely piece of music.
At this point Andrea had not wanted people to leave too quickly so asked for the commendation and blessing to be delayed until after they had had the opportunity to write any thoughts or prayers in a book in her memory and shared lunch provided by Andrea’s home group and share memories with the family and friends of Andrea in the narthex. After about ½ hour Guy called those of us still there to return for the commendation and blessing. It was a real celebration and thanksgiving as she had wanted; all were invited by Andrea to the committal and internment at Stonefall Cemetery, but as it was by this time 1.30 pm, the funeral having begun at 11.30 am, I thought my beloved would have wondered where I was. However I prefer not to go to the committal as I find the commendation at the church so much more meaningful for me. It made me realise how helpful such guidelines for a service would be for the family and although I have already selected my hymns I think I will get the service prepared in that way; it was so uplifting so that despite our sadness at her passing all efforts had been successful in making the service a true celebration for her life.