Sunday, 14 August 2011

On death, dying and the funeral

This has been a week of funerals. We used to say that they came in threes, but this week there have been five that I have known of and been associated with. This may be a function of my age, but it is more than that.
When I was first ordained over thirty years ago I  discovered that ministry at funerals was perhaps the most satisfying thing that I did. That has continued to be so. But while it is certainly difficult, things have also changed.
The main change is that 30 years ago more than three quarters of the funeral I did were of people I didn't know, and by and large, who didn't come to church. Most people in those days wanted a minister of some sort to take their funeral service, and I have always given this a high priority
Nowadays nine out of ten funeralsI do are people who belong to my congregation. It would seem in the wider community that many if not most funerals are now not taken by religious ministers.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, though often parishioners come back and tell me that they found the 'secular funeral' some what shallow. I suspect this is our problem more than theirs, though there are some observations that need to be made.
My most serious observation is that funerals are more than just a celebration of life. I quite often shudder when people tell me they don't want it to be sad they just want it to be a celebration.
Now I want it to be a celebration too! But that is not the only purpose a funeral has to bear.
The Christian funeral has at least two other important elements. One is repentance!
When we get to death there is a certain degree of failure and disappointment, we would say 'sin', that has to be confronted.  
This is not is a fact of life.
It seems to me pretty important to allow room for forgiveness. 
Both of the person who has died and of the persons gathered there. In what is often a lone opportunity ....after all you only get one opportunity to attend an individual's is important not to squander it.
I also don't think that it is wrong to feel sad when someone dies. Indeed it's rather strange and possibly inhuman not to. To try and mask that sadness and pretend we are only allowed to be happy is a mistake. 
It's better to own the complex of emotions rather than suggest that some emotions are not permitted. It is certainly wrong to tell someone they should deny being sad when their whole world feels shattered.
I am glad that at least one of the secular funerals I heard of this week went well. 
Some church funerals are shocking, I am glad also that the one I officiated at, which could have been difficult, seemed to go well too.
Funerals. Too important to get wrong!

No comments: