Address at the Funeral of Sally Owen
preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Graham Low
on 15 September 2017
We have come here today with a great mixture of emotions. We are all saddened by Sally’s death, but we come with memories of her as a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a relation and as a friend. We have also come here to thank God for the life that she was given, to commend her to God, and to pray that she is now at peace and in the closer presence of God.
Sally’s sons Jeremy and Oliver have given me an excellent biographical portrait of Sally, which I now offer to you. Sally was born in Blackheath. Her father was a schoolmaster and her mother was an actress. Her brother Bobs was born a couple of years later. During the war her family was evacuated to schools in Hastings and West Wales, and Sally later boarded at Bath High School. In 1945 a scholarship took her to St Hilda’s in Oxford, to read English. She greatly enjoyed Oxford life and met another student, Gwil, who had recently returned from war service in Burma and Siam. He was editor of The Isis, and he asked her to be his assistant. They fell in love and were married, as undergraduates in Blackheath. After two years in Durham the family moved to Oxford and Sally has remained here ever since, apart from two years while Gwil was a professor at Harvard. Jeremy was born in 1952 and Oliver was born in 1955. While Gwil pursued his academic life as a specialist in Greek Philosophy, both in Oxford and Cambridge, Sally looked after her sons, and also had a variety of part time work, including teaching English at Northway School, at Grendon Underwood Prison, and English as a Foreign Language in Oxford. She was also a librarian at New College, a PA to a don, and enjoyed life in university academic circles.
After 35 years of marriage Gwil died suddenly at the age of 60, soon after Jeremy had married Tricia. Several years later Sally met Mervyn here in Iffley, through mutual work on the parish magazine. They became good friends and then Sally asked Jeremy and Oliver if they would mind if she were to marry Mervyn! Marriage in this church in 1992 brought new happiness to Sally, as well an enlarged family made up of Mervyn’s children Gill, Michael and Carole, and his grandchildren Leo, Daniel, Jessica, Tim, Emily and Marnie. Sally’s family grew further when Oliver married Evie in 1999, followed by the birth of their daughter Abi a year later. Mervyn died three years ago after a short illness, while Bobs died last year, but not before being happily reconciled with his family after a period of estrangement. Family life has always been central to Sally’s own life, and her delight in telling us about her granddaughter Abi’s life in recent times has been a pleasure. Sally has also greatly enjoyed travelling with her children in recent times – as far away as Indonesia, as well as a recent and wonderful trip down the Duoro valley. Amazingly Sally travelled alone to Albania a couple of years or so to visit people involved in running a charity she supported there.
I think that there is one word that sums up the many aspects of Sally’s life and that is love. We have just heard Paul’s letter to the people of Corinth about love, a passage that Sally asked to be read today. Sally’s love was particularly focussed on Jeremy and Oliver. It was a patient, kind love, as they tell me they ran her ragged. She wore a t-shirt at parties with “I’m Jeremy’s mum” written on them. She endlessly drove them to events and always welcomed girl-friends and wives with love to their home at the Beeches in Lower Heyford. The Beeches was filled with a stream of visitors, often without notice, but she treated them without a flap. Indeed, Sally had a real love of being with all kinds of people: even in recent months she would say how much she valued people calling on her and how they gave her an inner energy. The love she had for so many of us had absolutely no trace of envy, or arrogance. And as Paul also wrote, the kind of love Sally showed was never resentful, though she could be challenging and critical. She never rejoiced in the wrongdoing of others, and was a seeker after truth and delighted in entering into new depths of understanding. The poem we have just heard by D. H. Lawrence reflects something of her deep spirituality, and her enquiring mind, a mind that accepted, as Paul put it, that we only know in part, dimly, in a mirror.
Sally had a wonderful ability to get on with a very wide range of people of any age or background. She would be just as much at home discussing at quite a deep level the poetry of George Herbert, one of her favourites, as she would be at Community Cupboard listening with empathy to someone whose life had completely fallen apart. This was a great blessing for many people, and something which she really enjoyed until very recently.
Sally had a remarkably active, intelligent and curious mind. Until a few months ago she was busy taking courses in Continuing Education within the University, as well as being much involved in theological discussion groups, poetry study groups, various Iffley societies, and the Village Shop. Many of us will remember how Sally arranged monthly Taize services in this church, where her inclination for meditative and mystical approaches to Christianity found particular expression. In all of these activities we saw Sally’s mixture of humour and insight, and a complete lack of pomposity, which reflected her hugely varied experience of life and the wisdom that grew from it.
Although Sally knew hardship in her life, she also radiated a sense of contentment, which was a very special gift to us. It was a part of her love. Like so many other people I am very glad to have had Sally as a friend. I will remember her disarming smile and her elegance, quite understated, but still there. And there was often a wonderful sparkle in her eyes, coupled with a cheerful and positive curiosity, often peppered with humour, as well as a deep and overriding concern for whatever was going on.
As we, Sally’s family and friends, gradually begin to come to terms with her death, so we can all respond to the Christian message of hope for her and for every one of us here today. The reading from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians reflects a deep sense of calm and peace, and of completeness. Sally reflected something of that in all that she said and did and she was a person whose hope lay in the mystery of God. She understood that our final and only hope rests in God, who has created each of us in love to be the people we are at this moment. The same God will, we believe, call us to a life of peace beyond death, as he has now called Sally. The Christian view, in which Sally believed deeply, is that our hope and confidence lies with God who promises that all who believe in Jesus Christ shall have eternal life. Though Sally’s earthly life has now ended, we believe that she is now on the next stage of her journey into her place in God’s kingdom.
May all of us, with Sally, be surrounded by the love and protection of God. And now I invite you to spend a few moments in silent reflection or prayer for Sally. Amen.