The Funeral of Sir John Tavener

On a gloomy day, just right for a funeral, in the enormous gothic building – “a liturgy in stone,” as the Dean of Winchester called it – 700 people have gathered to bid farewell to Sir John Tavener on his journey to the Kingdom.

Facing them at the head of the nave, the Cathedral Choir in red cassocks and white surplices, sing pieces by composers including Tavener, their rich, Western sound filling the vast space. In front of the choir, Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira and Great Britain, who will celebrate the Orthodox funeral, is seated on a throne looking over the waiting catafalque and down the nave. Around him stand Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, Fr Alexander Fostiropoulos, another priest from London and a deacon, their richly coloured vestments contrasting with the simple white of the Dean of Winchester, seated to one side. Below the Archbishop, the three cantors, led by Dr Alexander Lingas, wait in black rasa next to the catafalque.

The West Door opens, and Sir John in his coffin is borne in, followed by his wife and children. The cantors begin to chant the Thrice-Holy Hymn, “Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” The coffin is placed on the catafalque. The extended meditation on death, bereavement, salvation and resurrection that is an Orthodox funeral is under way. “Blameless on the road, Alleluia.” “Your hands made me and fashioned me.” “I have gone astray like a lost sheep.” “Blessed are you, O Lord, teach me your statutes.” The voices of the three cantors, alternating Greek and English, twine the ancient Byzantine melodies round the hearts of the mourners – melodies so familiar to the Orthodox, but thrillingly strange and new to the many others present.
After the Evlogitaria, the Choir takes over to sing the Kontakion (“With the saints giver rest, O Christ, to the soul of your servant”) and the Ikos, to Sir John’s own settings of Russian melodies. Then the cantors sing the Idiomela in the eight tones, and the Choir the Beatitudes. It is a wondrous coming together of East and West, occasioned by this great Englishman, who embraced the Orthodox faith, and whose music then so touched the hearts of many in both East and West that they have come in their hundreds to mourn his passing.

The Apostle, read in English by Alexander Lingas, exorts us not to grieve “like the rest who have no hope.” The Gospel, read in Greek by the Archbishop and then in English by the Dean of Winchester, assures us that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who have heard will live.” The Prayer of Absolution (“O Lord of spirits and of all flesh …”) and the dismissal lead to the singing of Eternal Memory.

Then, as the cantors chant, “Come, let us give the final kiss, brethren, to the dead”, the most remarkable scene of the whole occasion unfolds. First, Lady Tavener and her three children come forward to give their final kiss to their beloved husband and father. (The coffin is closed, as so often these days.) Little Orlando has to be lifted up to reach the top of his father’s coffin. Following them comes the lady representing the Prince of Wales. After her, the Mayor of Winchester. But then every one of the 700 people present files up, a seemingly endless line of figures in black, all slowly but patiently taking their turn to give their personal valediction to the one that they have loved and honoured in his life. The Orthodox among them naturally know what to do, crossing themselves and kissing the Gospel book, the cross and the ikon on top of the coffin, bowing to the Archbishop. Of the rest, less confident, most copy them. Young and old, famous and ordinary, Orthodox, Protestant, even Muslim, do not hold back. It is clear that Sir John had many friends and admirers, who were touched not only by his music and his personality, but also by his Orthodoxy.

It takes a long time, but eventually, all have paid their respects. The Choir sing their final pieces, several by Sir John himself. There is an Anglican hymn, “Of the Father’s love begotten”, which all join in with, the coffin is lifted and turned towards the west, the procession forms up and Sir John moves off towards his burial, the cantors chanting once again with the angelic choirs, “Holy God”.

The hearse moves away, with the family and close friends and the Archbishop and clergy, to the burial in Sir John’s village of Child Okeford in Dorset. The cantors and the Choir return to everyday dress and start for home. The last mourners issue into the chilly, damp air. The waiting tourists are free to enter and wonder at the great Cathedral – perhaps to be touched by the echo of what has just taken place in it.

James Heywood