I’m not sorry that funerals are becoming a rather large part of the focus of this blog, because it reflects one of the main elements of my workload at present, and the privilege I feel at being asked to do them as a representative of the local church. So I thought I’d do a bit of ‘reflective practitioner’ stuff that’s been brewing for weeks.
Until last autumn we didn’t have many funerals. There are some historic reasons for this, including poor management at the local undertakers (now thankfully changed and much, much better), and an incumbent with too much to do. Until last year, he had no Readers/LLMs to help develop the ministry he recognised as being important to our role as a parish church, but felt powerless to support it single-handed on top of all the other things he was meant to be doing. (He may well read this blog, so he can correct me if I’m wrong.)
Together with one of my fellow Readers we were planning to develop this ministry, when our vicar left for pastures new. It seemed right to carry on our plans for development anyway with the support of local deanery clergy, and then we had the sudden focus of that Royal Marine funeral I keep banging on about. It has had a huge impact on my ministry, but it also raised the awareness of both our fellowship and the wider community to this important part of parish ministry in the CofE.
Since Christmas the two of us committed to taking funerals have been kept surprisingly busy, both with funerals for members of the congregation, and with the funerals of those who want a Christian Minister to take the service (whether in church or crematoria). It has also become the focus of various people’s blog posts (at least Clayboy here and here, and Always Hope here) and some of my reading.
Reaching out with the Christian gospel should be key to our Christian lives, individually and corporately. Alongside taking funerals, I’m also involved in baptism preparation, and I would say that from what I have seen so far, people attending a funeral are far more likely to engage with the Christian nature of the service (wherever it is) than they are as guests at a baptism. I believe it is the elements of ‘need’, and perhaps ‘confusion’ as well as raw emotion which are present at a funeral, that makes this the case.
Families being visited before a funeral are more likely to accept, and be relatively comfortable with being prayed with and for, than they are at a baptism preparation visit.
However, my current practice is not to ‘preach the gospel’ extensively at a funeral. The deanery clergyman that trained me suggested it wasn’t appropriate, and I happen to agree; but that doesn’t mean that the gospel and the love of the Lord Jesus for the bereaved is not shared during the service.
Whatever the deceased’s understanding of God (through the eyes of their relatives) I’m trying to do two things when I create a funeral service:
- I try to find some connecting point between the life of the deceased, the values they seemed to emphasise by what they did during their life, and the example of Jesus in the Bible. For example, those for whom family life was a high priority gives me the chance to emphasise Jesus’ love for all; if the deceased made many sacrifices for others, or gave a lot of time to help other people, then that too is a relatively easy link to the example and teaching’s of Jesus. This usually happens in a couple of sentences towards the end of whatever sermon/eulogy/thoughts I’m able to give.
- I take the time to work through the options in Common Worship and select and adapt the prayers to reflect the person, the degree of loss the family feel, and the circumstances of the death, within the wider gospel message – it’s like the liturgy is the basket that holds the grief of those present, a basket that is held by God.
I have discovered that putting together and taking a funeral service, is probably the most creative act in worship terms that I am able to do as a minister that is solely down to me (and God of course). The process of doing it provides me with some of the times in a week when I am closest to God.
All this takes time. At present I reckon, that including visiting the bereaved, the admin and conversation with the undertakers, perhaps conversation with parishioners who knew the deceased, and interestingly sometimes the florist (ours are members of the church and I find pick up on bits about a family that I might miss at a visit), each funeral takes out a whole day of my life, before I actually take the service. No wonder over-stretched clergy with no other ministerial support are not able to make more of such needs and opportunities!
However, I believe it’s vital time, well spent! If you’re an minister with experience of taking funerals, how do you approach the process of taking the Gospel into people’s place of grief?