About this time last year I happened to be reflecting on the idea of ‘privilege‘ when it comes to funerals. Well, since starting probation, I’ve had the privilege of taking 17 funerals and participating in one other. Not that I’m keeping score, but I’m beginning to see truth in the old adage that where two or more ministers are gathered, funerals quickly becomes the topic of conversation.
I’m still not hot on the ‘privilege’ word, but having done that number of them, it’s interesting to reflect on how different each one is. And yes, sometimes it does feel like there has been an element of privilege. Or at least an element of reflected blessing. (If that doesn’t make sense, you’ll need to read the earlier article.) The interesting thing has been how and when that has been sensed. Very often, it is in the funerals where I would perhaps have least expected it. But that probably says more about my preconceptions and prejudices than anything else.
There have been funerals where it has felt a little bit like ‘turning the handle’. You are, in a sense, meeting a need and an expectation that ‘the minister does it’. And although you are using their words there is an element of the ‘impersonal’ in it all. But, on reflection, that may be more my problem. I seem to have earned the accolade of ‘he does a lovely funeral’ but that is a reflection of my ‘professionalism’ (I hope) moreso than personal connection. It’s the downside of probation – there is limited time to build up those those personal connections which add real colour to a service (any service, in fact).
And then there are the funerals which have been a little bit different, where I’ve felt that I have enabled people to create their own service which is especially meaningful for them. The pre-funeral chat often starts with the question, “Would it be OK if we…?” There seems to be a deeply embedded culture of there being a right way to ‘do’ a funeral. I am now in the habit of explaining at the start that there is no ‘right way’ and that the service is about expressing ‘their’ tribute to the deceased in an appropriate and respectful way. OK, that still puts boundaries around what can happen, but it leaves it open to more personal input. I’ve now had several funerals where a significant part of the tribute has been delivered by family members. It has to be said, it hasn’t always been ‘perfect’, but it has always been appreciated.
And then there are the funerals where there has been just a little extra ‘spark’. And these are the ones where it may be appropriate to speak about privilege and even reflected blessing. There is a sense of ‘connection’ with what is going on and what is being said (either by me, or by others). Everything just seems to ‘fit’. It starts, I suppose with the pre-funeral visit. Sometimes you just ‘get’ who the person was and what the family want to do. There’s the opportunity to take their ideas and ‘create’ a very meaningful funeral liturgy. And sometimes there’s the connection with the gathered mourners. At one recent funeral I got an almost universal and loudly echoed ‘Amen’ at the end of the prayers. You could have knocked me down with a feather – I wasn’t expecting it and it wasn’t a church funeral (or even a ‘churchy’ crowd).
Regardless of whichever ‘category’ funerals may fall into, they are all different and they all have something to learn from – even if it’s “I’ll not be doing that ever again.” (and there have been moments like that, I can assure you). I can see why they dominate conversations. Maybe when they cease to do that there is the danger that they have become ‘routine’, and they are certainly never that, nor should they be.