Three weeks ago I never imagined that I would say this, but — it’s a rare privilege for a father to speak at the obsequies of his son. It’s rare for obvious reasons. It’s a privilege because over the last three weeks I’ve come to know Hugh as never before, from hearing and reading what his colleagues and friends have said about him.
It’s customary not to speak ill of the dead so that what is said about them bears little relation to the truth – de mortuis nil nisi bunkum. I shan’t fall into that trap: I am more familiar than most with the anatomy of the gonads, so am well able to recognize balls. But I know what I saw in Houston when I visited Hugh’s work place. I know the shock, the glazed expressions, the crumpled faces of his workmates. I heard what they said. I read what they, and others, wrote. Those manifestations of grief were so very moving because of their patent sincerity. You can read some of them in the US funeral leaflet.
At the funerals of both my parents thirty years ago I was struck by how little I knew them, and how little they knew me as anything other than their grown up child. Thankfully, over the last fifteen years, I came to know Hugh as a man, a fellow explorer, not just a son. Now in the last three weeks, as in a whirlwind, I’ve had the privilege of seeing him as a teacher, an example, a beacon. It’s taken my relationship with him to quite a different plane. I wish, O how I wish, that it were not so. Like King David when his son Absalom was killed, I have wept, “O my son, my son, my son! would God I had died instead of thee, O my son, my son!” But it is so, and I must live with that.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that people can be divided into two categories—not sheep and goats, but drains and radiators. In pastoral ministry – and as a medical school teacher, which is a form of pastoral ministry – one comes across a lot of drains. Churches are full of them. They suck the life force from you as they enjoy ill health, or enjoy finding fault. They try to draw you into their jaundiced world view. They think that because you drink tea with them you give your and the church’s approval to their prejudices. They are, in short, full of crap.
Hugh was no drain.
He radiated mischief. Eyes were open and alert minutes after birth. He prized open Susan’s eyes, “wake up mummy” as she was taking a nap between ministrations to a 4 year old, a 2 year old (him), and a newborn. “Don’t sit on the bike – you’ll fall off into the pit and break your arm”. So he did, and he did. And then “don’t go swimming with your arm in plaster, or the cast will fall off” – so there’s a memory of Hugh running up to the pool at a campsite in the Dordogne, and jumping in with his plastered arm held high. There’s a photo somewhere.
He radiated cheek: not many Wesley College second formers would say to a huge sixth form rugby jock—Leinster triallist—who collided with him in the corridor, “watch where you’re going, you fat fecker”. Hugh’s alliterative skill was not enough to protect him from retribution.
He radiated energy. He loved an argument. He had a profound sense of justice that made him provocative, dogged, and protective. He was intellectually quick so did not make himself popular with pedestrian Wesley College staff: he agreed with the psalmist “I have more understanding than my teachers”. He did not make it easy for his parents. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that there is nothing worse for an adolescent boy than to have a father who understands him. Hugh had no time for people who should know better, and he told them so. He was utterly intolerant of humbuggery. He comforted the disturbed and disturbed the comfortable. I am so very proud to be his father.
It’s the job of a priest in a funeral homily to put a life into a theological context. I recall something said by the Archdeacon of Chesterfield as we chatted before my ordination as priest 8 years ago. We were talking about “sin”. He said, “quite simply, sin is life unlived”.
Sin is life unlived.
You are sinning if you don’t make the best of what life throws at you. You are sinning if you don’t use your gifts and skills to increase delight. You are sinning if you don’t use your personality to put a smile on people’s faces. You are sinning if you sit in the corner and wait for other people to serve you. I could go on.
Hugh was never a sinner! You just had to mention his name and faces would light up. And if you found him irritating, you deserved to be irritated. St Irenaeus had it spot on 2000 years ago: The Glory of God is a human being fully alive. Hugh was fully alive. I could go on with other learned quotes, but one more will do the trick: Jesus said I came that all may have life and have it in abundance.
Hugh had it in abundance. He shared it with the world. He helped people who received him convert old wine to new. He packed more into 38 years than some people pack into twice that time. I’m sad to think that maybe in the last 10 years he was worn out as he valiantly and sacrificially endured a series of hardships for the sake of his daughter and wife, but I’m so grateful to the people of Independence Oilfield Chemicals that with them for the last year Hugh found a place where he was appreciated and cherished. It’s not everyone who finds a music degree to be the perfect entrée into lab work in the Texas oilfields. Talk about charm.
I shall wrap up as I always do at funerals with an admonition. It’s particularly apt in this case because Hugh’s death was so unexpected. Remember, all of you, every one of you, that you will one day go the same way. And it might be tomorrow. So please, please use Hugh as your example: live your life to bring delight to others; live it so that when your time is up you leave behind as few regrets and as little unfinished business as possible.
Hugh. I am so desperately sad you’ve gone. I miss you every minute of every day, but thank you for letting your light so shine that we may glorify your Father which is in heaven. You are for ever with me.
Hugh Stanley Robson Monkhouse RIP. 20.10.1977 – 23.10.2015