'I want to be remembered as a good guy'

14th January 2000 at 00:00
John Michael Murray, a fourth-year pupil of Holy Rood, wrote in his religious education jotter less than two months ago: "When I die, I want to be remembered as a good guy. I want to die happy, and people will remember that. I want my kids to be proud of me. I want to have done everything I wanted to do." He was unaware that a horrific accident would take his young life on the first day of the new millennium when he was fatally injured in a fall from the window of his home. Some of John Michael's hopes will never be realised, but the overwhelming response to his untimely death reassures his family that he was indeed seen as "a good guy".

It is in the prescribed order of humanity that each generation should pass away in turn, leaving the world in younger and more vigorous hands. This linear progression of life is jarringly disrupted when a young person meets a premature death. I have attended the funerals of two Holy Rood pupils in the last six years, both the victims of tragic accidents.

John Michael Murray was a natural leader, invariably surrounded by a posse of his peers. If their assembly was holding up traffic in the corridors, you only had to shift John Michael to ensure that the group would decamp to some more convenient rendezvous.

A handsome son of a beautiful family, he won the attention of the girls in his year group, and greeted admirers and rivals with a broad and mischievous grin. Possessing an unusual magnetism, he would have become a persuasive and influential member of society, if his life had been able to run its full course.

In the midst of their grief at the loss of their only son, Joe and Rosa Murray were determined that the pupils and staff of Holy Rood, who had shared John Michael's life and loves, would have a fitting opportunity to take their leave of him. As many as possible were contacted, allowing for the difficulties occasioned by the holidays. The harrowing task of disseminating the devastating news to staff and pupils was eased for me by their caring and generous response. Each in turn offered help in contacting others, so that the school could be well reresented at the funeral.

Some pupils composed personal letters to their friend, which they placed in the open coffin at the chapel of rest, while others made their way to the Murray household, where they were welcomed and comforted by the grieving parents. Some were sixth-year colleagues of Catherine Murray, a gifted member of our senior school.

The Murray family demonstrated their Christian faith in an unwillingness to blame or recriminate. They provided to our young people an outstanding lesson in selfless generosity, as they offered John Michael's vital organs for transplantation. Rosa is a teacher of religious and moral education, but her family have said more about moral values in this single action than could be covered in a thousand RE lessons.

Pupils and staff were in their places an hour before the Requiem Mass began. They waited silently and respectfully, as the huge congregation filled the church and the street outside. The simple accoutrements of adolescence were carried in procession to the altar: a football strip, a CD player and history books. Busloads of pupils then accompanied John Michael on his final journey across the city to the cemetery, where they stood at his graveside in silent tribute. For many, this was their first encounter with mortality, and they huddled together for consolation in the driving rain.

The strength of the Holy Rood community was palpable as the school reopened for the new term. While teachers distracted pupils with the therapy of familiar routines, our team of chaplains was available to support those struggling to sustain their loss. When disbelief overwhelms them, they can reflect on the courage of the Murray family, who exemplify the gospel message, "By this will all men know that you are my disciples, in that you love one another". John Michael will live on in the hearts of those in Holy Rood. His passing recalls for me the lines by E S Millay: "My candle burns at both ends It will not last the night But, ah, my foes, and oh, my friends It gives a lovely light".

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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