Yesterday I took a funeral. This is not unusual, although in our slightly smaller than average parish, we get fewer than most. When I first came here, after being the curate in a large seaside parish which we affectionately termed "the death zone", that was quite a relief. But after a suitable time to recover, I realised that actually I don't dislike funerals at all. I know some of my colleagues are a little jaded with the funeral business, and sad to say some are downright snooty about taking the funerals of those who only think of coming to church feet first, while others suffer terrible angst about what to say in the sermon on such occasions. But for me, when they work well, as it did yesterday, there's really nowhere I'd rather be.
Admittedly this was an unusual one. Not least because when someone has reached 100, there's really little left to regret, and a great deal to celebrate, as I said in the sermon. Many funerals are much harder, with difficult and mixed emotions to handle. To see families mourning a child or a suicide, or even a much-loved parent taken before their time, is always shockingly painful. But what else can the church offer such people but a dignified, careful, and generous funeral for their lost one? And what better time to gently speak and demonstrate the love of Christ and the just-possibility that this might not be the last word after all? Never do I walk away from a funeral thinking that my time was wasted. And even the most bewildered of bereaved families leaves with a sense that we have done something good for them. Sometimes that's as much as it means to them, but it's a start.
But on an occasion like yesterday, the funeral becomes an extraordinary and quite glorious affair. It's true that few elderly ladies can have gathered quite such a network of relatives, dependants, drinking buddies, and other eccentric friends as this one. Fewer still have lived half their life in one of Cornwall's ancient manor houses. And fewer than that can claim to have a history-making warplane named after them (yes, really). But funerals often reach that point of celebration and, dare I say it, transcendence, that we did yesterday.
Sure, the central character was the absent friend whose unusual life story you can read more of here. But that was not the whole story. My privilege as the parish priest was to able to share something of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. And in the very cheerful bunfight afterwards, I fielded more questions and thoughts about God, faith, and spirituality than I normally do in a month of vicaring. And hardly a church member among the assembled guests.
I'm sorry that there are fewer and fewer church funerals now. And I'm sorry that we are not more bothered about that. Because we have something unique to offer people, and when we do, we find that they have a great deal to offer us back.