Funeral insights

It’s been a packed day and sets the tone for the next few days in fact.

This morning started off with a pre-funeral visit and it was good to be observing only at this stage. Definitely a visit that provided plenty of insights into the task of planning a funeral. Biggest insight was to ‘listen very, very carefully’. I don’t mean just for the details, but when you are being told things in a deadpan manner but with a twinkle in the eye you could easily end up accepting a story at face value and saying something that would entirely inappropriate. It was also good to see yet another approach to gathering information and I’m somewhat in awe of my supervisor’s ability to remember names and details without notes. I see the value of developing that skill because my note-taking was sometimes the subject of some comment and I could see that it might be distracting. That said, I wouldn’t want to rely on my memory for a list of family names and key dates.

I’ve written up my own take on the tribute so it’ll be interesting to compare notes and styles. Crafting the tribute itself was in interesting experience. You obviously want to cover as much as possible and add colour to bare facts. But by the same token you can’t include all the anecdotes and memories – and nor is it appropriate to do so. Those are often very specific memories, special to the person or group relating them to you. But the stories hold the essence of the person you are speaking about. It seems t me that the task of the minister is to distil out that essence and present it in a way that is still recognisable as the deceased and is detailed enough to trigger the memories and thoughts that bring the story to life. Distilling it too much risks losing something of the character of the person; not distilling it enough risks cheapening the tribute as a simple series of anecdotes.

And then there’s the language. Should it be pitched high or low? Should it be my ‘voice’ or should it suit the setting and the people who are there? If I use my own phrasing for something or pick words I would like to hear then I’m risking alienating those who are listening. But then what are the expectations? I’m meant to be the one with the words, the means to express what would be difficult or upsetting for another to say. And sometimes that means an expectation of using ‘proper’ words, respectful words, educated words. And if I lapse into colloquialisms and slang then it’s not me, not my true voice. There’s an assumption there about the order of the relationship, but it also applies the other way up as well.

Anyway, plenty to think about. The funeral is early next week and I’ll be participating in a small way. It’s easy to trot out the trite phrases about what a privilege it is to be alongside others at such a time, but at the moment I’m simply aware of the burden of responsibility we carry to speak words that are meaningful and to be true to the stories that have been shared with me/us. Just as well we’re not in it alone.


5 responses to “Funeral insights”

  1. Re-note taking. When I attended a pre-funeral visit with my assessor she mentioned at the start of the meeting to the bereaved she’d be taking notes.
    When I asked her about that she said, in general, as long as people know you’re going to be taking notes (and only after they’ve finished speaking) they accept it.
    That’s how the humanist at my father-in-law’s pre-funeral visit did things too. If I was the bereaved and the minister wasn’t taking notes I’d probably pick up on that rather than the opposite.
    Just my thoughts from my limited experience.

  2. As one who takes notes… I always explain what I’m doing with any bereaved family and they understand my need to ‘get it right’, something they would expect of me. I explain that I’ve got a series of questions, trigger questions, and they usually get the info I need to have. Some families will actually provide you with background info. This is gold dust !
    If there is a story that encapsulates the deceased, tell it, and tell it as it was told to you. My first full funeral involved a man who told everyone, and I mean everyone, the same story of his wartime experience. When I retold it, the whole crem (which was full, and therefore very scary for a first funeral) laughed in recognition.
    As for choice of language… Be yourself. You’ll quite quickly get an order of service that you are comfortable with and one that will ‘work’. You’ll find in full time ministry that it is impossible to have a completely unique service for each funeral and that you’ll use and reuse prayers and readings approporiately.
    I did say that your ‘bishop’ was remarkable, and his pastoral skills are exceptional. Find your own way of gathering info and retelling it. Listening is, as you’ve identified, vitally important and not all stories are appropriate to retell, but that can be phrased in such a way as to get the essence of the individual retold so that the family know you’ve taken the time to hear their story. 

  3. Yup, am with David here: I have thus far always taken notes but explained what I was doing on the ‘wanting to make sure I get it right’ tack and so far folks have been absolutely okay with that – they really want ‘the job’ to be done as well as possible [as do I!!!]  Also, yes, re.  be yourself – it’s much better if you are…  Overall, folks want to feel that they have had someone there with them through the experience who as really listened to both said and unsaid stuff.  Common Order is also a very useful and valuable resource when preparing – whether you choose to use the formats provided or not, it’s a great jumping off point.  And something to be aware of: don’t understimate how carrying the weight of other people’s grief can affect you.  It can be quite tiring, so you need to be gentle with yourself as well – and find a way of lifting that grief off your shoulders in some way as well.  Re. ‘trite phrases’ – no… it really is an awesome privlege to be with folk at this particular point in their lives… and who will tell you there stories and be very open and vulnerable with you.  It’s immense.  For me, it made me go ‘ah, yes, that’s why I’m doing this ministry thing’

  4. Totally agree with Nik about how grief can affect you. When you get that week when you are in demand and you seem to be doing nothing but funerals, you have to be aware of the pressure that you are under to do the right thing.
    So called ‘trite’ phrases can sometimes be the only ones to use.
    When I did my Dip Min in Edinburgh the biggest argument my group of three had was whether a funeral was an ‘evangelical opportunity’. One said ‘absolutely’, the other said ‘absolutely not’, and there was me in the middle. It is indeed a privilege to be with people at their most vulnerable. Be aware that just occasionally these sad times are opportunities for family rifts to resurface and can bring an added tension to whoever is conducting the services. The pressure to find a middle ground at such times leaves you shattered, especially if circumstances are particularly tragic.

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