A shiny red tractor tows a wooden trailer along the lane of a village in coastal Dorset. It’s a suitably murky December day, just a week before Christmastide. A sea mist hangs loosely over Old Harry Rocks and there’s an invasive dampness in the unseasonably warm air. It might rain or the sun might appear; it’s one of those old English days when, not knowing how the weather will turn, you’d be better off indoors. There aren’t many folk in their houses today though. The parting bell is tolling and, further to the thirty or so mourners following the tractor on foot, the winter-worn roadside is silently lined with scores of those who’ve turned out to pay their last respects to the man in the coffin on the back of the trailer.
In this village as, I imagine, countless others, there’s a grand rural tradition of processing to a funeral. Often as not, the way was traversed from the pub, across Church Meadow, through the graveyard and into the little Norman church. Sad though these events are, I have, in the past, drawn comfort from this walk which forms a timeless link with a Hardyesque past. And I have often thought of my friend of over forty years in a similar way: he was a man out of time; a man of the land. And more importantly than anything else, that rarity of being a man with no known enemies.
All the people from way back when I lived in this village are here in the graveyard. I see them now lined up at the bar: Douglas, whose headstone is, appropriately, inscribed ‘never a dull moment’; Robin, who spoke ‘terribly well’ because he went to Lancing; Peter and Peggy who ran the pub in a haze of fun. Numerous others whose faces I see clearly but whose names dance in my struggling memory. And all of them politely pre-fixed with a ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ by the man who will join them today; the man who, even as a grown-up, never called any of the elders by their Christian names without permission. As I said, he was a man out of time.
The church was full; the church hall was full; and the service was relayed to crowds stood outside. I wonder in what other tiny village so many have come to praise or weep. The vicar, who seemed openly overwhelmed, spoke so warmly and spontaneously, that we knew he was sharing our loss. He spoke of the sheer joy in talking with our friend and he told us that, henceforth, Church Meadow was to be known as Derek’s Field. ‘It’s just below the spot where he’ll be buried’, he continued.
And following some other tradition, they don’t seem to do cremations around here. I don’t like to think of people being placed in the ground. And I have to say Derek, once or twice this evening, I’ve worried about you being out there alone in the dark. On the other hand, you’re just above your field overlooking Studland Bay. Forty years ago, we used to make a joke: we’d say, ‘oh Derek, he can’t leave Studland without a ball of string’. Well, my dear friend, you were a man of this land so I think it will be ok. Rest in peace xx