A most puzzling funeral

2016-10-12 12:28
The final gathering at Collegians Club. From left: Lionel Sandy, Carl Coetzee, Naas le Roux, Ian Dixon and Rob van Heerden.

The final gathering at Collegians Club. From left: Lionel Sandy, Carl Coetzee, Naas le Roux, Ian Dixon and Rob van Heerden. (Supplied)

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About 10 years ago, while sitting at the breakfast table, I read the death notice in The Witness. Carl Coetzee, formerly from Springs and then latterly from a retirement complex in Howick, had passed away. The funeral service would take place in St Luke’s Anglican Church, Howick.

I knew Carl Coetzee well. For some years we had been members of Collegians Squash Club and had enjoyed some fiercely contested matches on the squash courts. He lived for his squash and was a very competitive player.

Then he moved up to the Reef, where he continued playing league squash. Some years later, he returned to his home town.

Time passed by and he started suffering from ill health. It was then that some of his former squash pals — Ian Dixon, Lionel Sandy, Naas le Roux, Bill Straw and other local legends — organised a lunch at Collegians Club to which Carl was invited.

It was a lovely nostalgic event. In retrospect, a final tribute to Carl. He did not look well and was just a shell of the former fit and gutsy player that we once knew.

That was the last time I saw him alive.

It was no surprise, therefore, to read his death notice in the paper and I assumed that towards the end, he had moved to a retirement complex in Howick. Hence the funeral at the St Luke’s Church.

When I arrived at the church, most of the people had already gone inside, but I was relieved to see a familiar face — that of Alan McEwan –— at the front door. He wanted to know if this service was for Carl Coetzee, the well-known Natal rugby player?

I thought so, but wasn’t sure. I only knew Carl as a squash player.

I moved to near the front of the church, but Alan had the wisdom to sit at the back near the door. Wise man. I think he had some uncomfortable premonition about the service.

I sat down in a pew next to a dear old lady who handed me the printed funeral service programme and looking around I saw many strange faces, none familiar and mainly elderly.

I glanced at the programme. The hymns did not correspond with those displayed on the boards in front of the church, but just then the minister stood up, welcomed everybody and explained that there was a change in programme. Ignore those on the programme, he said, sing those displayed up front.

I put the programme in my blazer pocket (on closer scrutiny, later, I realised it was an old programme from a previous funeral). The kind words the minister said about Carl were very appropriate — a good man, caring husband and father who had spent his last years in a local retirement complex. He would be sorely missed by friends and family.

But nothing was said about his sporting career. Now I started feeling a bit uncomfortable.

After the service, on the lawn outside, I bumped into one of my Carter High School matric pupils. Did she know Carl Coetzee? Yes, she replied, he was her uncle. Was she aware of his sporting career? No, she said, he never spoke of his sporting achievements.

A man standing behind us overheard our conversation. He introduced himself and informed us that there were two Carl Coetzees. He knew them both and Carl the sportsman was still alive and living in Maritzburg.

I had come to the wrong funeral.

I looked around for Alan McEwan but he had long since disappeared. He had slipped out part way through the service.

With head down and feeling rather foolish, I slunk past the tea and cake venue hoping no one would recognise me. After all, I could not go and celebrate the life of someone I did not know.

Some time later, Carl did pass away and his memorial service was held in the St Alphege’s Anglican Church near Comrades House.

The eulogy was given by Chris Coetzee, Carl’s son, whom I had taught at Maritzburg College in the eighties.

He welcomed everybody and was pleased to see that his ex-school teacher — this time — had come to the right funeral.

Rob van Heerden is a retired school teacher, having taught at Umtata High, Hilton College, Maritzburg College and Carter High, where he was deputy principal until 2007. Since then he has been employed at Carter as a gardener and general dogsbody.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  true stories of kzn 2016

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