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.
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):-
- The sheer emotional output is exhausting, really exhausting for close family and friends.
- 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.
- 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.
- Undertakers are best when they are so good that you almost don’t notice them.
- 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.
It really is.
I am just here to make sure it happens, pastorally care for you and deliver something that is good and sensitive.
It is not ‘my’ funeral.
I say this, as some ministers seem to project that it is ‘theirs’- I will allow x, y. I won’t allow z. This is my church, my rules. No you can’t do that etc.
When most people say that they ‘don’t want much religion’, they mostly seem to mean religion like in the last paragraph- ‘I hardly ever come near church or faith, but I feel there is something there: however I don’t like a minister who tries to lord it over me and impose rules- I am grieving’.
As for ‘proclaiming the gospel’- in situations like this I think you do it best by caring, being full of integrity and showing people that they-and the person who they have lost are the centre. Yes you use the words and where appropriate talk of Christian Hope, but you do it best when you do it (old word) ‘winsomely’, not hiding behind your office and saying ‘No’.
So if you like grandchildren doing cartwheels, a friend to play instruments or people playing powerpoints, I won’t stop you. Sometimes; despite how many funerals I have done, I will struggle to maintain my composure as I step aside and watch you grieve/celebrate in your own way.
It’s your funeral.
(Just don’t play ‘My Way’....)
Sometimes (often?) as a minister, your faith fails. The worst of us pretend it never does: the pulpit is not a place for questions or doubts….unless they have been ‘resolved’ and you have been ‘delivered’. The best of us try to give light to failings and questions.
When that was the case with me, I used to gain immense strength from watching those who were old and declining hanging on and showing faith.
I did the funeral of one such man this week. I heard the stories of how he was at his height, his family and his relationships. The stories were good and wholesome. What I remember most, however, was the image of him slowly, and as it transpired, painfully making his way up to communion. He always managed it with a beatific smile and quiet dignity.
That memory always strengthens me when I feel I am struggling, beset with a 1001 existential questions: here was one who suffered yet carried on with what he had, putting one foot after another, quietly seeking Grace.
And sometimes that is enough…
I have ‘finished’ as a minister of a local church (es), except I am still on leave until my new role starts on Monday. Technically, that means I can still be used if I so choose.
Someone I said goodbye to has died and I have been asked to take the funeral. With the permission of the minister taking over I will lead it in a couple of days. I am really happy to do this: the person who died was a wonderful, graceful person & I felt humbled in their presence.
I always tended to do this: if I was on leave and around, I would frequently take the funerals of people I knew. It never felt like ‘work’: more a privilege. It was one of the ‘costs’ of being a minister, I felt: but a ‘cost’ worth paying.
It is a good note to ‘end’ on though: a death of a life well lived. Then there is the service, which bleeds Hope and life in the middle of endings. I need to hear that as well as take part in it.
I did a funeral for someone this week (in fact, in the last month I have led more funerals than at any time in the last 15 or so years).
I was walking through one of the villages where I work and someone came up to me. I had briefly chatted to them on a few occasions over 10 years & they told me about a relation that died. They asked me to lead a funeral for them.
I was checking a few details with the Funeral Director and she said ‘That is lovely. That is the way it is supposed to happen- ‘vicars’ are walking around and people bump into you; they know you & ask you.’
That was refereshing to hear. A year or so ago my denomination produced a report that spoke about how funerals detract us from our ‘real’ work. Thankfully that was thown out and received the contempt it deserved, but its still left a bad taste. Recieving affirmation from outside the church was powerful.
Some of the best and most lifegiving bits about what I do (and am soon to leave) have happened when I am just walking about in areas where I am known. I guess most Revs who do that kind of thing would say the same; and it takes time to build up that kind of presence.
And when it happens it is so lovely.
Ok: there are not 3 of them and they probably weren’t kings (read Matthew 2), but I had this carol yesterday.
Until I sang it, I wasn’t aware how mournful the tune is: it is an antidote to saccharine.. This verse struck me in particular:-
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb
Of course it is trying to stop the tendency among carols to make them ‘sweet wikkle baby Jesus’ and point away from the idea that wikkle baby Jesus and his friend Santa are what the season is all about. But it made me think of 2 things:-
(1) Yesterday I went to a service for the closing of a chapel. I have never been to one before, but it had all the elements that I would have accepted: thanks, sadness, joy and lament. That is as it is supposed to be- enforced jollity at funerals: ‘no tears’ is plain wrong.
(2) This Christmas, partly due to being the only Rev resident, I have done more funerals/funeral visits than ever before.
I actually need carols like the one above to show me that the story has sorrow, dying and pain as well as joy and Hope. If Christmas has none of the darker side (and no Christmas is complete for me without playing the whole of ‘Low: Christmas‘), it is pretty empty.
A softer, slower day than last Sunday which is good.
Tonight I share in a service where we remember those who have died. I was not bought up in this tradition: when you are gone, you are gone: move on.
Except, the older I have got, I have come to realise that whether you have faith or not, you are marked by those who have died. Who they were still influences you & sometimes, when all seems ‘healed’, their memory hits you and you can find yourself mourning again.
So each year, I have come to value this service more. It seems that the village does as well; increasing numbers shuffle silently into the parish church to be still, to remember and light a candle to piece the darkness with light.
They leave, usually silently, or maybe with a mumbled greeting: words often seem difficult on this night.
I was going to have this Sunday off: I am glad I didn’t- it is essential sometimes to come face to face with mortality: others’, but ultimately your own.