Funerals: if you really listen…

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It’s your funeral…

Listening, really listening is very hard. Most of us just hear enough in order to respond.

I’ve heard some ministers becoming sniffy about the ‘dumbing down’ of funerals. I think underneath that is a fear-almost at times an anger- of loss of control when ‘we’ did everything. I’ve also heard some funeral directors be too directive- ‘they are non religious’, when underneath if you took a moment or two you’d find a richer, more complex story.

Really listening though is hard…when people say they don’t want anything ‘religious’ usually they mean they don’t want that control that those same ministers thought was good. They don’t want coldness, impenetrable ritual, a feeling of being ‘got at’ or something that feels remote. In practice, many of those who don’t want ‘religious’ want the 23rd Psalm, or The Lord’s Prayer, or a prayer or sometimes a combination of the 3.

They might not be sure as to why, part from it feels ‘proper’ or somehow comfortable. Some people are prepared to listen; to take the fragments of faith/hope/superstition/wishful thinking/whatever is offered and to honour them- not to look down or disparage them.

…and out of these fragments make something unique that honours the person and whatever faith (or non faith) they bring.

It’s not hard to listen: you just have to remember it is not their funeral, but yours…it was never about you in the first place.

The third in an occasional series about funerals.

Funerals: a journey continues

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There’s a book in the New Testament called ‘Philippians’. This part of the Bible has letters to churches; advice to help them negotiate the story of the culture that they live in. Part of this book has a lovely hymn in about Jesus and at the centre are the words ‘…he emptied himself’. Unpacking that whole passage is complex (I once spend a happy couple of hours in a library reading 50 plus pages of commentary on the Greek text and didn’t get bored...). In theology, they have the idea pf ‘kenosis’, which in simple terms is the study of this idea.

One way I take it is that if you are sure of your own identity, you’ll do anything to reach someone else; you don’t compromise, but you don’t stand on false ceremony. The human temptation is when you are unsure, you just get more strident and stop being servant like; in the context of a death the effects of that on a family are catastrophic. Occasionally ministers fall; they become too insistent on things being done ‘their way’- those stories are remembered by families and by funeral directors for years and are spun out of all proportion.

The way I’ve gone with funerals therefore is that if you don’t have a faith, but you want me to take a funeral, I’m not going to at the point of great need insist that you become ‘religious’. The way my journey has worked out, that seems akin to ’emptying out’ and serving people. Besides which, I figure; God’s bigger than any form of words. What I’ve noticed is that paradoxically, people who don’t want ‘religion’ often end up talking about faith more on a funeral visit than those who do want ‘religion’ (I’ve also noticed that I’ve prayed more...)

I could talk here about a humanist funeral that I once led with a Church of England Bishop in a church, but I’ve run out of time…


Funerals: a journey

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That is the kind of title that would turn most people off: we don’t talk about death in polite society- mostly we ignore it until it knocks on the door of those we know and our world is devastated; we never expected this.

I’d never encountered a humanist funeral until the very staid and traditional local vicar led one in his Parish Church.

It was several years ago: the village doctor had died- the vicar knew him and had been visiting him as his cancer journey drew to a close. The vicar had suggested that as the funeral was going to be large, the parish church was the only place big enough to hold the funeral. Knowing that the doctor was atheist, it was the only appropriate response. The dying doctor spoiled the purity of the humanist ceremony by insisting that The Lord’s Prayer be said as he said to the vicar: ‘It is your church’.

That was an eye opener for me. I’d been fairly ‘orthodox’ before that moment. I could understand the idea that people might want something different, but that seemed ‘wrong’; we provide something and if you don’t like it, you can go elsewhere. If someone ‘edgy’ had have done what the vicar did, it would have meant something. Someone staid and traditional and so comfortable with that that his God was bigger got through to me.

I have a confession to make; my name is the Reverend Graham Peacock and I sometimes lead humanist funerals.

Another thought about funerals…

I posted on something similar to this a few weeks ago…

It happened again.

I was contacted by an undertaker. A family for whom I had done a funeral for only weeks ago had suddenly and tragically lost another member. They wanted me.

They were very clear- ‘You know where we came from before, and now this- we find ‘God’ very difficult, so we want non religious’.

Of course, I could have said ‘no’, but I know I am in a minority. I have no issue with leading a non religious ‘service’:-

-It is not a ‘service’, it is a ‘memorial’ (And that is important- it is not splitting hairs: it cannot be a ‘service’ if God is not invoked imho).

-Big word ‘ontological’ (being and nature)- my being and nature as an ordained minister does not alter. Indeed: paradoxically, the family often refer to me as ‘vicar’ or even ‘our vicar’. I still dress as I would for a ‘religious’ funeral. Ditto my being and nature as a representative person is not altered were I to speak at a Rotary Club as a minister, about, say, rock music.

-From comments afterwards, many there believe that a ‘vicar’ being there, makes it somehow ‘special’. Some believe that a service has happened. I guess it has- I believe God is there and I still pray for the families. Many more so- I can see the hurt.

-If all I do is do a memorial, show respect and value the person/family and some people leave it thinking ‘We saw a Rev and he was nice’, they begin to think ‘religion’ is not bad after all. Indeed, I have found many people’s desire initially for ‘non religious’ stems from the perceived or actual experience of religious figures being controlling or dominating. Once they realise that that may not necessarily be the case, many ask for some Christian content. Another ‘no’ just confirms their prejudices.


As the Black Eyed Peas intoned ‘Where is the love?’, of saying ‘no’ or being over fussy faced with pain and needing someone?

I guess I am lucky- I work with good, independent firms who care, who neither ‘use’ families or ‘use’ ministers. I can honestly say, that I have learned much about chaplaincy etc from my experiences of working with them and being ‘open’ where previously my theology was more ‘closed’

There are no easy answers

I spoke with someone this week who I had not met with before. He asked me what I did for a living and I told him.

‘That sounds interesting…and difficult’.

A day or so before I got a call: a local undertaker wanted me to do a funeral for the daughter of someone whose funeral I had done less that 4 weeks ago.

It seems a world away from some who post on my Facebook stream.


There are no easy answers.


I can hear that cry,

And I want it to stop,

Offer comfort to it

(or ignore it).


Another life finding out,

That ‘security’ goes so fast,


It doesn’t take much,

To fall,

Spinning out of control.


Tissues offered,

A comforting arm,

The tears stop,

(for now),

The sun shines,

The embarrasment;

‘I’m sorry’.


This is how we live,

I guess the point is,

To acknowledge it,

And not pretend it never happens,

Or shuffle, full of embarrassment,

When it happens near to us.


Alive and yet dying..

I met this person at a funeral.

‘I am dying and this funeral has made me think about how I want to be celebrated’.

They were upset (I have no time for retrospectively told preachers’ stories that smooth out all of the wrinkles), but on this occasion, calm.

They talked about how, when they first received their diagnosis, they were very sad, but also angry: how could they go ‘before their time’. They may have even said they were angry at ‘God’ or their idea of ‘god’- I don’t fully remember all the contours of the conversation; just the integrity and honesty.

Initially- very unwillingly, they joined a group at the local hospice. For a lot of activities they were asked to be part of, they just could not see the point. However, gradually things ‘clicked’ and they talked about the relief they felt being around people who were living with (yet dying from) terminal illness; no one avoided them, stuck for words or adopted a concerned expression and awkwardly said ‘how are you’.

They said something like ‘I felt normal once again’.

Although this person had a faith background, they were just not sure about where they were now.

Several things struck me:

-The person’s total honesty: there was no pretence.

-Their integrity

-The stage  where they were at had led to an absence of self pity.

-The ‘vicar’, was somehow considered ‘safe’- someone who listened and was accepting. Sometimes I wonder what ‘use’ I am- encounters like this help me to see it.

Deo Gratias


More funeral thoughts

You have watched and read words from ministers who have got sniffy about funerals. Almost like it was their funeral and they were the gatekeeper and the bereaved family mere supplicants to the minister’s event.

You have heard many ministers talk about a funeral has to have ‘x’ or ‘y’ content to make it ‘Christian’, or they could not lead it (yet most of us manage to act in a representative function without following a prescribed form of words: Rotary Club speech, school prizegiving, chairing a community meeting etc etc etc anyone?).

I’m helping with a funeral today. I say ‘helping’ as the family are doing it themselves. They have just asked me to give them advice about the shape and the words they will use. I will close the funeral in a minor way, with something appropriate reflecting their late family member – their respect for the local church-and a ‘spiritual but not religious’ theme. Funeral- being a chaplain enables you to adapt.

As a chaplain, and knowing the family, this feels totally natural. Past discussions with some ministers about whether one ‘should’ do such a funeral seem to belong to another planet.

Being present and available,showing love and understanding I think gets over more ‘Christian content’ than insistence on a mere form of words anyway.

The story

It was set to be a small funeral: most of the friends and family lived a considerable distance away and many of his contemporaries had died or were too ill. Also: there was to be a later memorial service, closer to where he had lived.

They had not picked hymns, fearing it would be embarrassing.

‘But don’t stint on his life.’

They went on to talk about a life well lived and one that connected with many people. There were many anecdotes- too many for a eulogy, but great for the funeral tea.

I did what they said and I did the kind of eulogy that I would have done for a full congregation (although more turned up than they suspected). After all; the story is most important….


Some things I had not fully realised/had forgotten about funerals (not a full list):-

  1. The sheer emotional output is exhausting, really exhausting for close family and friends.
  2. Children at funerals are good- they pick up what is going on very easily. Intense emotions (and recovery from them) come naturally to them and they feel less awkward about that than adults. Plus they tend to help adults both to grieve and to feel hopeful again.
  3. Eulogies are a real skill. A good one can ‘connect’ mourners and help them to ‘begin to remember.’ A bad one (over pious voice, not very personal or reliance on jargon etc ) can leave a bitter taste.
  4. Undertakers are best when they are so good that you almost don’t notice them.
  5. A good funeral tea is essential.


I must have conducted 100s of funerals in the last 15.5 years of being a minister. All of them I ‘felt’: it was a job; but it never was just a job- it was (and is) something much more.

In all those years I have never been to a funeral and never lost a close friend or family member. At the age of nearly 50 that is fortunate indeed.

Today we are at a funeral: my father in law’s who died suddenly a week last Friday. We knew he was dying and the last few weeks have felt disconnected and somehow not real. We did not expect death so suddenly: no one does.

All 4 of us: 2 (our children) who have never been at a funeral. I may be a pall bearer, but that will be it- I never want to take the funeral of parents or in laws.

Life changes. So fast.