February 9th, 2013

Fishy Circumstances

Rhys Martin

Yesterday, hundreds of people crowded into a church too small for the masses gathered to say farewell to Rhys Martin. It wasn't presented as a funeral, but as a Thanksgiving, a celebration in gratitude for his life.

We arrived just in time to crowd in at the back, turning into the road just after the procession bearing the coffin, lead with stately stride by a man in a tall hat and cane. The church is surrounded by the start of a building site; this isn't the only event it's held too large for its current limits.

I knew Rhys from York. He wasn't a student there, but might as well have been one. CM, his wife, had a complementary class schedule with his, such that they could commute up and down the length of the country together each week. He was already sure in his Anglican faith then, a faith which had wavered for years between his missionary upbringing in the south Pacific and his calling to become a minister. He was tall, long-haired, tattoo'd, and loved motorcycles. Eventually, years before I met him, he heard his God tell him, "100% or nothing". And that's what he gave.

The service was structured around the story of his life, with slides collaged to document and bring back memories of his life from childhood destruction of flower beds to their wedding to scenes from his life as vicar. He was a funny, smart, intelligent man, appreciative of how little he fit the stereotype of his calling. (At the end of the service, the bishop sending Rhys to his rest apologized for being a perfectly ordinary bishop.) As Uncle Rhys to his cousin's children, he played variants on tag (one version transformed them into were-cows); introduced them to heavy metal; appreciated their uniquenesses as teenagers when some felt they didn't fit in. As a father, he build sandcastles and told stories. He gave the best hugs. Apparently he never did hold a license, despite his motorcycle-loving and riding ways!

Rhys died of leukemia, four months after his initial diagnosis of it. He was only forty-four.

CM led us through the structure of the story, with other relatives and friends telling their own parts of it. It was poignant and funny and bittersweet. He'd requested that attendees wear silly hats to the service, and his family especially followed his request. We sang together, voices four-hundred-or-so strong creating glorious sound through powerpoint and the church's live band.

And then the chairs were rearranged and tables and food laid out and drinks, and we talked with old friends and Grouting explored and we met new people and celebrated a life well - if all too, too briefly - lived.