Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hatch, match & dispatch #2 : funerals

Get a group of vicars together, and left to their own devices they always end up talking about funerals. This proves a) that the clergy don't have much conversation, and b) that the business of dealing with the departed and the bereaved is one of their biggest concerns.
Different priests have wildly differing funeral "workloads", depending on the type of parishes they minister in. Where I served my curacy, it was rare for a week to go by without 3 or 4 (fortunately for our sanity these were shared amongst a team). Here I tend to do just 8 - 12 a year, but each funeral is an emotionally and physically draining experience, however experienced a minister is. Overall, the Church of England still conducts a huge portion of funerals in this country, but recent statistics reveal that this dominance is gradually waning.

Clayboy had some interesting reflections on this last week, here and here. I'm not sure I really "get" his idea of Christian-humanist funerals, but I agree with his analysis of the situation. Most of the bereaved families we meet are not regular churchgoers, although many have had some contact with Christianity during their lives, and often articulate some kind of faith, however they understand that term. In choosing what kind of funeral they want, they are influenced by two largely incompatible forces. On the one hand, they want the church funeral which provides a depth and, perhaps, dignity, that they don't feel they will get elsewhere (what Doug calls the "something missing"). I think this is because the Christian minister will speak of issues of eternity as well as just this life, and people are searching for that perspective.

On the other hand, they want something that will accurately and sensitively reflect the dead person and the life that they lived, and they tend to feel that a church service won't do that for them. On the whole, I have to say they are absolutely right about that. Although many of us try our very best to make the funeral personal, it is hard to do so when all you know about the person is what you've been told in a one-hour interview, conducted under difficult circumstances.

The funeral liturgy originated in a different age, one which had no desire for individually tailored ceremonies, but was happy to dispatch everyone to the sound of the same familiar and comforting sentences. The modern Anglican liturgy (Common Worship) has added to the dissonance with everyday life by trying to make the funeral look and sound like a Sunday morning service in the local parish church, with Confession, Collect, and all kinds of lovely liturgical responses. Overall, it's not surprising that many people are turning away from a death ceremony which looks nothing like anything they know, or indeed want.

There are ways of reducing the gulf between the "service by the book", and people's expectations. The best way of all is to include personal recollections by friends and family, as opposed to the vicar's attempts to recycle what she/he has been told. But not everyone is equipped to do this, and it's hard for busy incumbents to give the time to help people through the preparation process. What most parish priests will do (Bishops look away please) is lighten the load of the liturgy, missing out the bits that really don't work, and sticking to the basics. We can also give people input into choosing music etc., although this can be a difficult issue (I know several priests who will not allow any music apart from hymns at funerals - surely a mistake on their part?).

How can we really help people who want a Christian funeral, but are alienated from our churchy style? My solution would be different from Doug's. I think the church should stick to offering funerals that are overtly Christian - after all, if people want a humanist funeral, they're probably going to ask a humanist. Instead, let the C of E start up its own firm of Undertakers. The Funeral Director is the person who offers the most guidance to bereaved families, and a church-linked Director for Church funerals would be best placed to guide people through the process of tailoring the service to reflect the life of the deceased with music, pictures, reflections and so on.

Coupled with this, it would really be nice if we could revise the funeral service itself to reflect the experience of what actually works in practice. No doubt this would be rubbished as dumbing-down by the usual suspects, but this is one time when thousands of parish priests can't be wrong. A slightly lighter, more flexible liturgy would enable the Christian Funeral Director and the minster to help families put together something which is personal and uplifting, as well as witnessing to the Christian hope.

6 comments:

Roger R. said...

A Christian funeral need not be 'churchy' at all... I have taken a large number of funerals too, often when I did not know the deceased. BUT... there is always I way I have found, to ensure that the gospel message is plain without offending, nor indeed making it 'churchy'.

However, operating as I (usually, but not always) do outside the Anglican liturgical tradition perhaps I have an advantage?

Ray Barnes said...

Thanks for this post. It is good to hear some views from the 'officiating side' to balance one's own thinking.
When my husband died 18 month's ago, he had left very full instructions with a funeral plan, choice of music etc. Since I was not at that time a Christian and all my family's funerals had been humanist, I was very nervous about the type of clergyman who might 'land' at my door. (John had asked for a Church of England minister to conduct the service).
In the end, whatever one's beliefs/lack of belief, what matters is that the deceased's wishes be adhered to as closely as possible, for two reasons, it is the last thing one can do for the one who has died and it is a comfort to the rest of his/her family to know that his wishes are being conformed with. Sorry about the awful grammar.
I was very lucky to have a particularly sensitive and caring priest as my first real contact with the church. The funeral was all it should have been and this influenced my eventual turning to Christianity, So, let's not have too strict a regime, too set a formula, but rather a priest with a flexible approach and a good kind heart.

Roger R. said...

Thank you Ray... Nice to know that you had such a positive experience at a sad time.

Nancy Wallace said...

I'm not sure if a revised version of the Common Worship Funeral service is needed. Like you, as a C. of E. priest, in order to be sensitive to particular situations I usually 'lighten the load of the liturgy'. I think the rubrics allow us to do this - there's a lot of 'may say' and 'these or other suitable words'. As one of the comments above says 'a priest with a flexible approach and a good kind heart' is important.

Graham Brack said...

The retreat to the familiar is entirely understandable, and of course those who attend church rarely are commonly those who comment on the change since they were younger.

I have two possible remedies. First, I think we should encourage people to think about their own funerals earlier. I have my hymns and readings chosen, and my wife knows what I want, though of course I wouldn't mind if she used her initiative when the time comes. Penmount Crematorium has templates for services, and I think vicars could create those to suit their churches with boxes to fill in hymns or reading titles.If they really object to music other than hymns they could say so, and it might avoid conflict later.

Second, people these days hire wedding planners, and I see no reason why the C of E couldn't employ funeral planners to work alongside undertakers. Done sensitively, they could be available to families when people are terminally ill without their having to think that this is the person who will bury me. We don't have to call them funeral planners - remembrance planning sounds like a more positive thing to me.

Perpetually In Transit said...

This post resonates very much with my experience. I found that really careful choice of the elements of the service went a long way towards making it more personal, whether in church or at the crem.