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.


5 responses to “Funerals”

  1. Very thoughtful post, and it resonates with me, even over two years into parish ministry. Every funeral is different and sometimes you do indeed connect in a meaningful way with a family you have never met before. And as you say there is always something to be learned and I have had quite a few “I won’t be doing that again” moments!! Also I think the reason they are the  topic of conversation for minister get togethers is that human element… the unexpected thing that happens, the dealing with quite bizarre situations, the ‘what would you have done here’ discussions (I have these conversations with undertakers too as they have seen it all and then some).

    I like the challenge that a funeral presents -at each end of the spectrum – how do I create a meaningful liturgy for the 29 year old punk with the mohawk murdered in the street or the 97 year old life time church  member?

  2. Great Post John.
    I am not inundated by funerals – but I do try and encourage the families to think about the service. There is an element of ‘doing the right thing.’ I just wish that didnt involve the undertaker discussing hymns. Although I have on occassion had families changing their minds after discussing the service in more detail. And I have found the undertakers very helpful in accomodating changes and families wishes.

    Two things I do that help are:
    1. I suggest they choose the readings and I have a wee folder with a range of bible passages, poems, blessing that I leave with them. This does a couple of things – it helps them personalise the service and also gives the something helpful to read. Poems, I find, can help with emotions – either by allowing people to express how they feel or to even let the healing tears flow. I always explain that I will use at least one Bible passage. In the service i use the poems either as stand alone readings or during the ‘tribute’ – depending on whats suitable.
    2. I never write the service until the morning of the funeral or the night before. I tell the families I will be leaving it then so that if they remember something they want me to include or want to change things – then it is fine. I know I have the luxury of time – so far I have only twice had more than one funeral in a week.

    I try my best to make sure each funeral is different and dont just a churn out a script. But in fairness I use a selection of prayers – that I choose from to suit the family and circumstance and in most cases a similar order of service.

    But in answer to the is this a privilege – then I fall on the side of yes, it is. To be made welcome into the life of a family – sometimes as a stranger, at a time of sorrow and sadness is a privilege and not something I ever take for granted. It is also enabled me to get to know people and get close to them.

    And yes Dorothy – there are some bizarre situations….

  3. An interesting and thoughtful post. I will try to remember this when I get to the stage of taking funerals…
    One thing I wonder is time. I know Falkirk crematorium is very, very busy, so time is limited. I’m sure that is the case throughout Scotland, where there are insufficient crems for the population. Again, that is another factor. Depending on the circumstances, the family may not be aware how limited the time for the whole funeral service is.

  4. Thank you all for the contributions and encouragement. Shuna, I like the idea of the ‘readings’ folder. I may try and put something together like that.

    Mrs G – time is particularly a factor at a crem. Falkirk is busy, but no worse than many others. Unless you know you’ll need more time, you have a 30 minute slot. Allowing for coming in and leaving you’re down to just over 20 minutes, realistically. That’s not a lot of time to fit everything in, but that depends on how creative you want to be. I, personally, don’t take the opportunity to ‘preach’, preferring to use the readings and a bit of ‘gloss’ around them and the prayers for that purpose. I always make it clear to the family that time at the crem is limited, but there is still scope for personalising the service. Mind you, the biggest nightmare is if someone else is delivering the eulogy and they haven’t stuck to a suggested time limit. Be prepared to edit on the fly what you’ll be saying.

    Church (or parlour) plus crem (or burial) gives a bit more scope for creativity and time usage. I don’t repeat the eulogy at the crem, but do give a shorter summary as a reminder. My graveside liturgy is short and to the point. I don’t think people appreciate standing around much at a graveside, whatever the weather, listening to me ramble on.

  5. At the crem time is at a premium. The 20 minutes that John rightly wrote about can be much less in practice depending on the size of the congregation. I am always reluctant to let family members to the eulogy precisely because of the time constraints, but, more importantly, the emotional difficulty they put themselves under, and there are all kinds of reasons for this, not all of them good.
    I never ‘preach’ at a funeral. I try to let the readings do that for me. I do ask if families have been helped with poems and readings and I ask if I can use them and get a source for them to use elsewhere.
    The ministers talking about funerals thing… it is usually because of the little anomalies that happen, sometimes unintentionally funny, occasionally farcical, often simply tragic, that we often compare if, for no other reason, to learn from colleagues.
    I did have your nightmare (more than once) but most memorably it was a retired minister and friend of the family who began with a joke, then spoke for nearly twenty minutes as I gently sidled across the front of the crem with an imaginary shepherd’s crook to get him off the ‘stage’… It was a huge fumeral at a crem I was not normally presiding at and there was anopther huge one following, and I had been given the assurance that he would stick to time….and then there are family members who have absolutely no thought for who ever is following them..but that’s another story….

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