Ngaio Marsh funeral address

Hear Reverend Simon Acland's address at the funeral service for Dame Ngaio Marsh on 24 February 1982. The service was held at the Christchurch Cathedral.


There are three things I would bring before you the confidence with which we can commend Ngaio Marsh to God's hearth and keeping: Ngaio the person, and the public figure, that she undoubtedly was. Ngaio Marsh was essentially a very private person, that so many are here and so many throughout the world mourn her dying shows that there was a very public aspect of her life. Her writing and her work with the theatre of necessity were very public activities. But the person we remember today and who we commend to God doesn't easily fit the images we have of famous people.

St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians writes of a still more excellent way, the way of love. But he doesn't leave it there; he spells out what he means by love. Love is patient and kind and envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude, never selfish, not quick to take offence. Love keeps no store of wrongs, does not gloat over other men's sins but delights in the truth. I have used here the new English bible translation. I was going to have that version read, but it was pointed out to me that there could well be a thunderbolt from heaven, from Ngaio if I did. Such was Ngaio's love of the English language in its greatest beauty.

But the love which St Paul spells out is no vague thing; St Paul is direct and to the point. In Ngaio's life we who knew her saw this sort of love expressed. She was kind and generous. She did not envy others their gifts, and was certainly not puffed up about her own. While she enjoyed knowing what everyone was doing, she was never malicious in speech or act. And as for love never behaving itself unseemly, the King James version, Ngaio never behaved herself unseemly. It's because Ngaio lived and showed the sort of love that St Paul described - though I wish he'd included in his list a sense of humour or fun, because Ngaio certainly had that. But it's because Ngaio showed this sort of love, that I believe we can, in good faith, commend her to God.

Though Ngaio had no immediate family of her own, her young cousins the Mannings were very close to her, our sympathy today is with them, especially John Dacres Mannings and his family. But our sympathy is also with all who were given time and kindness, support and love. In fact all who were treated by Ngaio as family throughout the years. It is because I am one of these that Ngaio asked if I would conduct her funeral. If she'd wanted her achievements listed here on this occasion she wouldn't have left instructions for me to do her this service.

As a very small child I would help Ngaio in the garden at Valley Road making small streams down the hillside to water the plants. I was convinced that she was the same age as I was; in fact I was four and she was in her forties. This experience of being treated as a contemporary is shared by many. It doesn't surprise me that her neighbour's small children came to home with flowers on Saturday, weeping at the death of a friend. In the children's parties she held each Christmas many discovered the living reality of tradition. And in more recent years the grandchildren of those who had themselves once been guests experienced Ngaio's generosity and the warmth of being treated as a very special person. There is something of a paradox in this. Ngaio treated each person as being special, and that was genuine, and yet she treated everyone the same. She wasn't exclusive in her friendships.

Many of these friendships were made through the University of Canterbury Drama Society. Anyone who endured the bitter cold of rehearsals in the old boat sheds was bound to share a certain comradeship. Being a very shy person, or as Lili Kraus said of her, she had a chaste reticence, and this reticence shows in her autobiography. Ngaio rarely made the first overtures of friendship. But those who first met her as adults, and who moved past her shyness, discovered a great loyalty, and a very good friend. Many of her students moved from awe at her presence to close friendship. Somehow people find it difficult to believe that someone who is tall, and has a voice of depth and resonance, her voice was never gruff, can be shy. The same attributes of graciousness, loyalty, warmth and generosity were shown to those nearer her own age. Friends of long standing, and friends of more recent years, were welcomed without a trace of pomposity or self importance. Neither of which she tolerated in herself, or in others. She enjoyed the benefits of fame as being really good fun. Mrs Behrens, her housekeeper of recent months, when first employed asked the gardener: ‘But will I get on with Dame Ngaio?' He replied: ‘there'll be something wrong with you if you don't’. That wasn't just a loyal word, it was a true one.

It would almost be unfitting if there weren't something of a mystery about Ngaio. There is, it concerns her birth, the year of it. Her father was absent minded and forgot to register her birth, then, when he did, some years late, he again absent mindedly wrote down that year, instead of the year of the event. Various official documents bear various years of birth; the day and month are always right. Ngaio never bothered to sort it out. What was the point? To put the record straighter, she was nearer 86 than 82.

The books Ngaio wrote were important to her because of what they enabled her to do. Nevertheless through them she undoubtedly gave enjoyment to many. We in New Zealand sometimes fail to appreciate that her following in North America was enormous. And in South America her books are there, in translation, on the bookshelves in the most unlikely small towns. Ngaio's true love was the theatre, and Shakespeare in particular. In this field she was both an enthusiast and a scholar. As a director she avoided [unclear word] but had great flair. She exercised great discipline in her writing and her directing and her expectation in others, and her faith in them, was great. She never displayed that temperament she so often associated, wrongly I think, with two very demanding professions.

So publicly in her own right Ngaio Marsh was a great person. Privately I believe she was an even greater one. She began her books by considering a group of people. In her work in the theatre she was working with people, in bringing to life on stage other people in their depth and full range of emotions. In her life she had and showed a great love of people. That for me is where my thanksgiving is today. And in the midst of sadness that is what we can reach out to. A great thanksgiving to God for giving us a share in the life of a person of love.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up. Charity doth not behave itself unseemly; seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth. There abide these three: faith, hope and charity; but the greatest of these is charity.

Community contributions

No comments have been posted about Ngaio Marsh funeral address

What do you know?