This week I have been at two funerals in an official, but non-leading capacity.
They could not have been more different, and yet they raised, once again, huge questions about what we are doing, why we are doing it and who we think we are serving by doing it.
The first funeral was attended by around two dozen folk, neighbours, friends and church folk, who had waited two months for the service to take place. What struck me most was the significance of the conversations afterwards (there was no 'afterwards for refreshments') as we stood in the car park and share funny stories about the deceased, each discovering whole tranches of the story that were new to us. I reminded me, were any reminder needed of two things...
- the need to allow space in the service, even if it's just a minute or so, for personal remembering
- the importance of the 'afterwards' and its informal opportuity to share the stories.
I endeavour to include/mention each of these when I lead a funeral.
The second funeral was attended by around 60 - 70 folk, I'd guess, many of whom had travelled significant distances to say farewell to a relative. The person I'd gone to support commented that "he would have loved it" - and that always seems an important, if not over-arching, factor. The personalisation of funerals, within reason, is something to which I always aspire.
Within reason? Yes, I think so. People ask me to lead funerals knowing who and what I am, and I have never had anyone decline once I mentioned Bible readings or prayers. Funerals have an important pastoral role, which includes a measure of dignity and decorum, sobriety and sensitivity.
Over the years, I have conducted funerals for people aged 'less than zero' to 103, in packed congregations and when no mourners were expected. I've shared detailed tributes and I've had to acknowledge that I never met the deceased but they were 'known unto God'. I have been in countless chapels, churches and crematoria, have buried and scattered ashes, blessed new graves and replacement gravestones. I've stepped in when the celebrant couldn't cope and stepped up when no celebrant had been planned. I say this not as a boast - for what is there about which to boast? I say it as recognising that funerals are hugely important, and that getting it right - or as right as we can - matters.
If, at the end of the day, we have enbaled people to remember with gratitude someone they have known and loved, if I have been able to offer some words of comfort and hope, if we can go away thinking, 's/he would have liked that', then we've got something right.
RIP R and C whose funerals were this week, safe in the love of God.