On Monday night Nicola and I dined out with one of the local undertakers to celebrate his birthday… he threw a fabulous five course dinner for 40 in an excellent local restaurant!
One of the surprising priveleges of ordained ministry has been being part of people’s lives at a time of bereavement. I’m always grateful that as a stipendary minister I’m not there to get a paycheque from the family (in fact I get nothing – although the central church gets a fee that they use to offset stipends for churches in areas that can’t afford a minister). I’m just there for them at a time when they often need someone to listen, reassure, encourage, strengthen and console.
My training incumbent Robert Carter was a master at funerals. An empathetic person by nature, at funerals he excelled. Listening to his genuine care and love on phone call, or at a home visit was an education in itself. Several made their way into our church fellowship through his clear concern and care.
Prior to curacy I was mentored for a year by a wonderful priest and preacher Andrew Dow. He recently sent some of his proteges the following advice on structuring a funeral service, which he was happy for us to pass on to others who might take funerals…
Our local undertakers have taken out a full page advert in our local rag in which they quote from a new report called “The Ways We Say Goodbye”. This report highlights the huge changes that are taking place in the way the general public now view funerals, and what they want on such occasions. I guess this will not surprise you – basically we clergy are now being increasingly pressed in to the mould of a compere of a “show”, rather than the leader of a service. I thought I would drop you all a line saying how I have personally tried to resist this change, whilst not denying the “congregation” something of what they are hoping for. I hope it may be helpful to you.
Basically, I arrange the service such that most or all of the tributes come early on, straight after the opening hymn (assuming there is one). Given that folk delivering the tributes will probably be nervous, it’s helpful to them to do their bit early on. I always ask to see a copy beforehand of what they will say. (Easy by e-mail) This ensures they write a proper script, it means you can check the length, and it will give you lots of clues for the sermon later.
After the tributes, perhaps another musical item, then the Bible reading and your address. People are usually very glad for me to choose the reading. If it seems rather a stark “change of gear” from anecdotes and tributes to the “Christian bit” (!), the way I try to get round this is as follows: I will say something like this: “It’s been helpful to share lots of good memories about N – but because we are meeting in a Christian place of worship (ie church or crem chapel), it is appropriate to focus for a few minutes on Jesus Christ, a figure who towers over all humanity, and so can be such an inspiration to us all…”
In the address, I always “expound” the Scriptures, in some form. I believe we must preach a proper sermon – albeit quite short – at funerals! I’m horrified at the number of clergy nowadays who don’t give a proper sermon at either funerals or weddings!
However, I always take care to mention the deceased by name very early on in my talk, and at intervals subsequently. This keeps the congregation “on side” and hopefully listening, and avoids the criticism: “Here’s the vicar’s religious bit – we can switch off..” Hopefully your pre-funeral visit to the family will have produced certain areas of the deceased’s life (job, hobbies etc) which can be linked up with Biblical themes. The trick is to take note of these little details, and work them into your Biblical exposition, continuing to weave in at intervals the deceased’s name. My aim in any address and through the prayers is to help the congregation face up to the reality of death (something the “celebratory send-off” tries to cover over and forget, but which is important in the grieving process), but also obviously to proclaim hope and purpose through the Lord’s resurrection!
After the address I usually put the prayers.
I personally don’t have set talks for funerals. I like to look into the eyes of the congregation and adapt my basic material to their presenting needs as I go along. But some of the starting blocks I have leaned on have included the story of the two babies in the womb wondering if there is life after birth, a story I once heard and adapted about a computer game designer who physically steps into the world of the computer game and the reactions his ‘creations’ have to him explaining there is life beyond the computer game, and a reflection on the verse in Ecclesiastes that simply says God has put eternity in our hearts… which leads me to reflect on how inadequate those hallmark cards often feel that say things like ‘you’ll always live on in my heart’ when we know that that is just delaying the inevitable oblivion as who can remember their great-great-grandparents… something in us rebels against the idea that this is all there is. Something in us knows that we are made for more significance than to be forgotten in a score or two years time. That something takes us back to eternity in our hearts, and to the creator who stepped into the box to tells us what that eternity could be like (and even provide a glorious bridge out of that box after his computer game characters rejected him, killed him, and – as destined in the code of the game – he comes back to life).
Sometimes at a funeral you just look out and want to weep. You hold it together because its them you are there for not yourself. And often at a funeral you see a glimpse of unusual honesty and reflection in the eyes of those gazing back at you. The closest relatives may of course not have heard a word you said, but will have noted how you said it, and yet many others will be unusually conscious of their own mortality and open to gently exploring an answer. Not a few will be very grateful to you if they find some evidence that they are not merely an overgrown monkey with no point or purpose in a passing existence . When Hallmark fails there is always something much more lasting to offer… the perspective from outside the box. The perspective of Jesus Christ.