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John and Lynette Rodgers laid to rest in saddest of journeys as mourners say tearful farewell to tragic couple 17 days after they married

Pall of sorrow cloaks Holywood as newlyweds who died on honeymoon in South Africa buried side by side after service at church where they wed

By Ivan Little

Published 03/11/2015

Mourners gather for the funeral of newly-weds John and Lynette Rodgers at Holywood Presbyterian Church yesterday
Mourners gather for the funeral of newly-weds John and Lynette Rodgers at Holywood Presbyterian Church yesterday
Corporal John Rodgers.
The hearses carrying the two coffins
John and Lynette Rodgers drowned in South Africa while on honeymoon
Mourners gather for the funeral of newly-weds John and Lynette Rodgers at Holywood Presbyterian Church yesterday
Tragic couple John and Lynette Rodgers cut their wedding cake on their big day
Mourners gather for the funeral of newly-weds John and Lynette Rodgers at Holywood Presbyterian Church yesterday
Mourners gather for the funeral of newly-weds John and Lynette Rodgers at Holywood Presbyterian Church yesterday
Eva Reilly is comforted by Rev Noble McNeilly at the funeral of her daughter Lynette and husband John
Mourners gather for the funeral of newly-weds John and Lynette Rodgers at Holywood Presbyterian Church yesterday
The couple on their wedding day
Mourners gather at 1st Holywood Presbyterian Church for the funeral of John and Lynette Rodgers. Pic Kevin Scott.
John and Lynette Rodgers

He may have been just a face in the crowd of mourners who fought back tears as John and Lynette Rodgers' coffins were carried yesterday from the same Holywood church where they were married 16 days ago - but 84-year-old Jim McGookin had a special reason for paying his respects to the girl "with the magic hands".

For Mr McGookin, from Bangor, believes he was the last patient that physiotherapist Lynette treated, just a few days before her wedding last month.

And as he stood outside the ivy-clad First Presbyterian Church, Mr McGookin, who had been suffering from sciatica, said: "Lynette told me she was going on leave after my appointment. She was just wonderful, a lovely girl who really helped me with her magic hands.

"It was all first-name terms and we had a laugh about the fact that we both went to Sullivan Upper School in Holywood, though nearly 60 years apart.

"I couldn't believe it when I heard on the news that she and her husband had drowned on their honeymoon in South Africa. I was completely shattered. And I just wanted to be here to say thanks in my own small way for her life and for her skills."

Many of the 160 people who had seen John and Lynette exchanging their wedding vows on what they said was the best day of their lives, on October 17, were back at the church yesterday for what was their families' worst day.

Lynette's widowed mother Eva Reilly, who last week described her daughter and her husband as the perfect couple, was comforted by the Rev Noble McNeilly as she arrived at a back entrance to the church.

Mr McNeilly, who married John and Lynette last month, conducted yesterday's service at which mourners sang the same two hymns that wedding guests had sung - Give me Oil in my Lamp and Be Thou my Vision.

Mr McNeilly revealed that John and Lynette had chosen what he called a "pertinent" Bible reading from the Book of Ruth for their wedding service.

One of the verses read: "Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried."

Mr McNeilly told mourners: "We have been devastated but they have been together and nothing has separated them, even unto death as they promised."

Mr McNeilly also disclosed that at her wedding reception in Ballygally, Lynette, who had joined the Girls' Brigade in the Holywood church at the age of three, had told the organisation's current captain that she would become a leader after she returned from her honeymoon.

The minister told the Belfast Telegraph that he had never conducted a double funeral service before and never one for any newlyweds so soon after their nuptials.

Their coffins sat side by side in the same part of the church where they were married and Mr McNeilly said it was a difficult service for him and for everyone else there. "It was very emotional. I have to admit to that."

John Rodgers was a part-time soldier in what was formerly known as the Territorial Army and a friend and colleague, Cpl Billy Mawhinney, read a tribute to him and Lynette.

It had been jointly written by John's sisters Gwen and Kathryn and by Lynette's brother Graham who gave her away at her wedding last month.

The tribute said that the couple would be remembered for ever, adding: "The tragic events in South Africa have extinguished their bright flame too soon but we will never forget our daughter, son, sister, brother or friend. We set out to write a tribute, but there are no words to immortalise John and Lynette."

In a plea to the tragic newlyweds' friends and loved ones, the couple's siblings said: "Share your stories, shed your tears, make their memories everyone's and remember what a beautiful couple they were and always will be, over the rainbow."

They also expressed their appreciation to the authorities who had facilitated the speedy return of the bodies to Northern Ireland. "The families would like to thank everyone involved in bringing their loved ones home to rest, we are eternally grateful in the manner and speed in which affairs have been handled."

After the service, which was relayed to scores of mourners in an adjoining church hall, the couple were brought slowly and solemnly from the church in similar coffins with similar wreathes on top and placed in similar hearses.

It was a heartbreaking contrast to 16 days ago when friends said John (28) and Lynette (26) had excitedly left the church hand in hand and brimming with hope and happiness about their future together.

But their lives were cruelly cut short by a riptide as they went swimming on a paradise beach at Plettenberg Bay in South Africa, only six days into their dream honeymoon.

Their deaths have cast a huge pall of sorrow over Holywood, a town which has become more used to being in the headlines with good news stories of late because of the exploits of golfing hero Rory McIlroy.

But yesterday it was tragedy, not triumph, which brought over 20 reporters and photographers to the town, though they respected the families' calls for them to keep their distance from the church and from the mourners.

John, who was from Ballygowan and who worked for a printing firm in Belfast, was a corporal in B (North Irish Horse) Squadron. Colleagues said he had a passion for firearms and his abilities as a "high quality" instructor made him the go-to person in the squadron for lessons for both serving soldiers and recruits.

Around 15 uniformed soldiers attended the funeral to honour John, who had been a reserve soldier for eight years after serving with the Combined Cadet Force at his old school, Campbell College in Belfast.

The commanding officer of the Scottish & North Irish Yeomanry, Colonel James Campbell-Barnard, paid tribute to John as a "good friend and excellent soldier".

He said John, whose beret was on top of his coffin, was dedicated, highly respected and loyal.

"One is now left to ponder what he would have undoubtedly achieved over the coming years. Inevitably, both his and Lynette's death have been so very keenly felt by his Squadron colleagues and across the regiment as a whole. He will be sorely missed by us all."

Rev McNeilly said the families of John and Lynette had received huge support from the people of Holywood and Ballygowan.

And he said he had been contacted by a number of Lynette's patients, including Mr McGookin, to express their fondness for the physiotherapist who was based at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald but also carried out work in a Bangor GP practice.

Soldiers carried the coffins into Redburn cemetery as a piper and a bugler played, and the couple were buried side by side.

And that, said Mr McNeilly, was just as it should be. "They went away on their honeymoon united in their love and their dreams."

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