the rich earth

Mar 18, 2023


 “In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;”  Brooke

Over the years I have celebrated hundreds of funerals, many prepared in detail with family and friends gathering to celebrate the life of the one they love. There are efficient funeral directors, beautiful flowers, glossy brochures, photographs and video presentations, eulogies and even artificial grass and sterilised sand at the graveside.

Yet despite our efforts to soften the reality the pain of grief remains and is raw and real.

It was the Chatham Islanders who taught me how to really celebrate a funeral well.

My first funeral on Pitt Island (two hours on a fishing boat after the six-hundred mile flight from Aotearoa to Chatham) was for Eva, matriarch of the small Pitt community and midwife on the island for as long as anyone could remember.

Over the next few years I buried several Islanders, Ken, Bill, Tim and Charlie among others.

In the absence of city niceties each Chatham funeral followed the same down-to-earth pattern with active participation of many in roles of communication, transport, food, hospitality, speaking, digging and filling the grave, singing, as the community carries the grieving family and friends through difficult funeral days.

All of this in funeral rites lasting two or three days, not a funeral director in sight and certainly no hint of washed sand or artificial grass.

Instead there was more often mud and gumboots on the hill-climb to the family-farm place of burial, and the rain and wind welcomed as a sign of divine funeral blessing.

At a Chathams funeral there is no escaping the messy aspects of burial, and a readiness to speak of the dead with respectful honesty understanding that love is greater than human imperfection.

When grief is raw and family tensions surface we are brought down from our high places of achievement and ambition. Our vulnerability in the face of the death of the one we love brings us to earth on our knees.

In such a gathering our earthly success and masks mean nothing as we face the fact that one day, at a time we do not choose, we too will die.

Those who do not run from this reality become like the humble and therefore holy tax collector of today’s gospel.

Wikipedia gives a clear and helpful definition of humility:

“The term “humility” comes from the Latin word humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which may be translated as “humble”, but also as “grounded”, or “from the earth”, since it derives from humus (earth). See the English humus.”

From the earth.


We can’t avoid being brought-to-earth when we take a fist-full of soil then open our hands to let if land loudly on the coffin of the one we love. And we leave the cemetery with hands soiled with rich earth from which new growth comes.

I have seen family bring buckets of soil from the garden or farm of the one who has died. That’s powerful, the soil, once worked by our loved one, is now the reminder that they too will come to new and eternal life.

I was reminded of the Lenten call to humility on Ash Wednesday when by chance I was celebrating Mass at Nazareth House with Jack (my 93 year-old-priest uncle). As I turned to Jack to receive the ashes I expected him to speak the common accompanying text encourage me to turn away from sin and believe the Gospel. But instead I got the message I probably needed to hear, the old form: “Remember man that thou at dust, and unto dust thou shall return!”

And today as I rest with these scriptures brought to ground by my failures and fragility, I am moved anew by the hope-filled words of the Old Testament prophet Hosea

“after a day or two he will bring us back to life,
on the third day he will raise us
and we shall live in his presence.
Let us set ourselves to know the Lord;
that he will come is as certain as the dawn
his judgement will rise like the light,
he will come to us as showers come,
like spring rains watering the earth.’



FFF IN THE CAFE… Send your name and the name of a cafe or bar to Scribble FFF on a table napkin, take a seat and wait.


Monday 20 March 2023 (and every Monday)
10.00am at Moko (Kudos) in the Bush Inn Centre Christchurch (Directions) Trish

Wednesday 29 March 2023
10.30am at Cafe 28, 28 Cornwall St, Lower Hutt, (Directions) Catherine

Tuesday 11 April 2023 (and second Tuesday of every month)
10.30am at Zenders 44 Hopkins Road, Newstead, Hamilton (Directions). Christina




  1. Thank you John so mich. I’m grappling with the soon to be death of my beloved elder daughter and your words just filled the bill today.

  2. Beautiful! I was on the wind swept hill in the Chatham’s with you. Just as an aside, I met your Uncle at a weekend retreat about 5 years ago. What a gracious down to earth gentleman. I am thrilled to hear he is still very active in his ministry to you John.

  3. Thank you Fr. John for reminding me of the wonderful people of the Chatham Islands. I was the nurse/midwife/hospital manager for a number of years. It brought tears to my eyes thinking of the passing of those good men and women I ministered to and who were so kind to me. I was also grateful that they were able to have a Catholic burial. Thank you. for attending to these people who are left without a resident pries since us sisters left the Islands. I hope you or other priests re able to visit from time to time to celebrate Mass and administer the other Sacraments Once again, Thank you Fr. John.
    God bless you
    Sister Joan Marie smsm


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