THE grieving family of a former German prisoner of war was refused a funeral service in a Sutherland community hall owned by a church because it was a humanist service.
Heinz Voigt’s son said he was "saddened" by the decision to refuse the humanist service at the Fountain Road Hall, which belongs to St Andrew’s Church of Scotland, Golspie
Retired Northern Times accountant Mr Voigt died at the age of 91 on November 4 at Migdale Hospital in Bonar Bridge.
His son Heinz (63) and daughter Liz (67), a retired technician at Golspie High School, wanted to hold his funeral service under the direction of Brora-based humanist celebrant Wendy Armstrong at the local hall.
The request was made through undertakers Mackay and MacAskill of Alness.
But on the same day as his father’s death, Mr Voigt received a call from the undertakers advising him that the church refused to allow the ceremony to take place in the hall.
"For 41 years my father worked in Golspie. When he retired he and his friend Colin Ploughman looked after the pathways and walks at the Big Burn in Golspie," said Mr Voigt, managing director of a renowned architect’s practice in Arbroath, Angus.
"He loved nature and wanted to share that love appreciating everything natural that was on this earth.
"My father was not an atheist – he had a belief in God. But it was a wider view of God as an expression found in nature. All the family were christened and I married my wife, Ruth, in St Andrew’s Church in Golspie.
"When he died, my sister and I felt that a humanist service was the best way of remembering our father and to have it in the Fountain Road Hall, which is the main hall in the village.
"But when we got the message that we couldn’t have the ceremony in the hall because it was humanist we were shocked and saddened. I was very disappointed. It was my understanding that there have been humanist services there before and the word ‘church’, I am led to believe, was dropped from the hall’s title because it has received community funding.
"My sister and I were hugely disappointed – my father had done a lot for the village. We didn’t ask for the service to be in the church which is understandable and we felt that would be wrong. But the hall seemed appropriate as we understood there were previous humanist services there.
"We were in a panic, and after a sleepless night hastily phoned round to find where we could hold the ceremony. The Masonic Hall thankfully came to our rescue.
"They were fantastic and did not hesitate to offer the hall. Wendy Armstrong who conducted the humanist service did our father proud. The coffin was draped in wild flowers – the music represented the hills of Sutherland my father loved so much. The hall was packed. We could not have wished for a better send-off for our father.
"But what happened was a disappointment to our family and to our father’s memory. I have highlighted what happened because I would not wish for another family to go through what we did at such a sensitive time."
According to the church’s own website, Fountain Road Hall was recently extensively upgraded with funding from grant awarding bodies as well as money raised by the congregation.
The website states the hall serves as a "community venue" in the absence of a village hall and is used by many bodies.
Mr Voigt snr was born in 1925 at Reichstadt in Dippoldiswalde, near Dresden, and had studied accountancy before being called up to the German army in 1943 at the age of 17.
He was involved in the fighting around the time of the D-Day landings and was captured by the Americans after having been wounded.
After the war ended in Europe, the POWs were moved to Scotland and a camp at Kirkton, Golspie, where Mr Voigt worked on local farms.
He was eventually allowed to return to Germany but as his home area was by then under Russian occupation, he decided to remain in East Sutherland, living in Dornoch and then Golspie.
He was with the NT for 41 years and for a while also had a paper and grocer’s shop in Dornoch.
Mr Voigt is survived by his second wife Sheila and his two children from his first marriage to the late Isabella Ross – plus six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Mr Voigt was buried overlooking the countryside he loved so much at Golspie cemetery.
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A Church of Scotland spokesman said: "Fountain Road Hall is owned and operated by Golspie (St Andrews) Church of Scotland.
"The congregation makes it available to a wide range of community groups for a variety of activities throughout the year.
"The hall is regularly used for dance classes, swimming pool exercise, power training classes, slimming classes, Bible study and by groups including the Beavers, a Gaelic choir and the Free Church of Scotland.
"The Scottish Women’s Institute, Church Guild, Caithness and Sutherland Women’s Aid, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, Golspie High School and East Sutherland Art Society also use the building for events throughout the year.
"The hall is very much a community asset and has been upgraded with the help of grant funding and group/individual donations allocated to the Fountain Road Hall Development Group, a sub-group of the congregational board, which was given full authority to develop the building.
"The Fountain Road Hall Development Group has since been subsumed back into the Church’s congregational board which has discretionary oversight on use of the hall and the power of veto.
"The hall is not the only community facility in Golspie and the board has the right not to make it available to any group whose core purpose is not compatible with the beliefs and values of the Church of Scotland.
"The Kirk Session will be considering the issue further at future meetings."
Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) chief executive Gordon MacRae said: "HSS Humanist celebrants perform a vital service across Scotland, helping families celebrate the lives and legacies of loved ones.
"Our Humanist celebrants perform thousands of deeply personal, moving ceremonies each year.
"It’s disappointing a community resource, such as the Fountain Road Hall, feels unable to host a Humanist ceremony, it’s certainly not a sign of the welcome, inclusive and plural Scotland that Humanists strive to build."