Apr 192010

I was chatting with Nikki today at lunchtime in Rainy Hall and we covered the usual broad range of topics. I’m doing a funeral in a couple of days and I mentioned that I still don’t get the ‘privileged’ thing that many in ministry speak about. We agreed that, for us certainly, it wasn’t the best word to describe how we felt about funerals. I don’t mean to suggest that we didn’t like doing them, but that there were problems with the word itself. It didn’t seem to capture the ‘motivation’ behind doing a funeral.

As I was wandering home from the station later, it struck me what my issue with the word is, at least in my eyes. For me, it’s the wrong focus. When we speak about being privileged, the focus is on us, and how we are feeling. It’s almost as though we are getting some sort of reflected blessing from the bereaved. After all, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Maybe we’d like a little piece of blessing too?

But, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter a hoot how I feel about a funeral. It doesn’t matter whether I feel any sort of blessing from it at all. It’s not about me in any way, shape or form. I could, in theory, walk away from it utterly untouched and unconcerned and still have been a blessing to those who mourn. Because that’s the important bit. My purpose is to be part of the flow of that blessing from God, bringing the sense of comfort the bereaved need. But in a very real sense I am not even needed for that, but I’m there. And I’m there because I am called to be and so I pray for God to use me in any way necessary to bring that blessing of comfort. My only desire is to speak the words of remembrance of the deceased, to show that memories may yet live and still be spoken with pain and gladness, but nevertheless still spoken, and to communicate that there is hope beyond even those memories. But that’s not about me, or at least it shouldn’t be. That’s about giving myself over to my calling; about dying to my own desires and seeking only God’s. That, to me, is only a privilege in the very superficial of senses.

I suspect that comes across at terribly self-righteous and even critical of those who take a very humble view of privilege. It’s not my intention to criticise others, but simply to reflect on why I have an issue with the word. so, if anyone’s got a better word, I’m happy to hear it.

Dec 302009

Today was my first solo funeral service and I was happy enough with how it went. I made (so far as I’m aware) only one verbal gaffe but it was a fairly minor one and not something that would be likely to cause upset. I managed to lop 10 years off the person’s age. I realised it was wrong as I finished saying it but correcting myself would have ended up with me getting tongue-tied, I think. Anyway, nobody commented but I’m sure they noticed.  I even managed to get some chuckles at the places where a humorous memory was recounted so I think that speaks well of the tone.

The timing was absolutely spot-on and I’m glad I looked up the running time of the song they wanted played part way through.

As everyone was filing out the church, the sleet and hail was coming past horizontally and it didn’t bode well for the cemetery. However, it stopped just as we arrived and held off just long enough to complete the ceremonies there.

So, in hindsight, would I do it differently at all? Probably not too much. Without the musical interlude the tribute would have needed to be a little bit longer. I probably had enough material to work with, but as I was going over it again I spotted a few gaps that I perhaps ought to have asked about. Not a problem give the slightly reduced time for the spoken tribute, but something to be aware of in future. I was also pleased to be able to accommodate the various requests of the family but made a mental note to check the lyrics of requested song tracks. Not a problem in this case, but again, something to bear in mind.

All in all I suspect this was a pretty easy introduction to funeral services.

Nov 032009

… one not so giant leap.

Today I got to participate in a funeral for the first time. It might seem odd that I haven’t done so before now but the opportunity simply hasn’t arisen (and I’ll not mention the microscopic funeral count, relatively speaking, to be ‘enjoyed’ in Brussels).

So having had the opportunity to participate in the pre-funeral visit, it was good to get the chance to play a little part in the service itself. In the liturgy used by my supervisor, there’s a brief welcome, the opening hymn, a short opening prayer, a reading and then the tribute. Thereafter, there’s another longer prayer, the ‘intimations’, closing hymn and benediction. I was down to do the short prayer and reading but with 10 minutes to go it was suggested that I might as well take it from the start to minimise the swapping back and forward.

I know some people would throw their hands up in horror and suggest that that was unfair to spring such a thing on me, but, let’s be honest – it was only a few words of welcome and announcing the hymn. If I can’t cope with that, even at short notice, then I’ve got other things to worry about.

The service went well, I thought, and there was only one verbal trip and that wasn’t mine. It was received with good grace and some amusement so perhaps it was a good reminder that, even if we do slip, the world isn’t going to come to an end.

One of the mourners was particularly emotional at the start of the service and my supervisor commented that I had done well to keep it from putting me off. To be honest, I was so focussed focused on getting my bit correct that you could have marched a band through the place and I wouldn’t have been put off. But that’s also a useful reminder. It can be easy to get so wrapped up in what we are doing that we can forget that there are others there who may need an extra word of encouragement or a little time to gather themselves. Being sensitive to that is a large part of what has to be learnt in the formation process.

So, another pre-funeral meeting tomorrow with the funeral on Friday, this time doing the latter part of the service, after the tribute. By that time I’ll practically be an expert.

Oct 302009

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.

Jan 132009

Camelon has a pretty heavy funeral workload that’s shared out among the three-strong ministry team. This means that I get an opportunity to see different approaches to funeral services and get the benefit of several people’s experience. So far I’ve only been on a couple of funeral visits and the funerals themselves but it’s interesting to see the quite different approaches within the same basic structure.

One thing that did strike me though is how the eulogy comes across. Obviously it is put together from conversations with close family but I hadn’t really appreciated the difference that personal knowledge brings. Of the two funeral visits I’ve been along to, one was a ‘church’ funeral (the deceased was an active church member), the other a ‘parish’ funeral (the person was a member but hadn’t been for years and the family had little or no church connection).

Even allowing for differences in ‘style’ between the two people taking the funerals, it was obvious that the eulogy for the active church member was ‘coloured’ by knowledge of the person. It gave depth to the information provided by the family and brought to life, in a sense, the memories being recalled. For the other person, the eulogy almost became like a list of facts but without the personal knowledge, it would have been impossible to add colour. I have to say that the pre-funeral visit to gather information wasn’t the easiest. The family member was chatty enough but even they themselves couldn’t really express much beyond some simple anecdotes. The memories were mostly about themself rather than the person who had died.

I guess it’s a difficult balance to strike – allowing people their own voice through your words but bringing the memories to life without adding false colour. Even for those whom we think we know there is that danger. The public persona may well be very different to the family experience and there must still be an honesty in the presentation of that person’s life.

And of course, within all of that there is the need to bring words of comfort and hope to those who are mourning. Without that then the memories do simpy stand as a listing of a person’s life.

May 192008

I was at the funeral of a former colleague today. John Wilson was certainly one of those people of whom you could genuinely say they were unique. I had worked with John for a number of years and he was at one and the same time the fount of all knowledge and the source of all manner of frustrations. There’s little point of recounting tales here because most would be utterly meaningless without extensive explanation of characters and situations. But the sad thing is that however much we can tell about a person, however much they have been involved with work or personal life, you never really know the person. You realise that when you hear a eulogy. I knew about the love of jazz but never knew John sang in the church choir. He could type ludicrously long memos and emails in no time but I never knew he was an accomplished pianist. I knew he worried over the minute details of a project but never knew his concern extended to supporting environmental charities and Oxfam.

His passing was sudden and unexpected but, as was said at the funeral, it meant he avoided old age and dependency. Maybe not a lot of comfort, but for someone who was always there for others, perhaps fitting.

The occasion also gave me the opportunity to catch up with other former colleagues. Despite my good intentions of ‘popping through sometime’ I never do and so it was good to catch up with what everyone is doing. It’s been almost three years since I took redundancy yet it seems like no time at all. But in that time people have moved on, circumstances have changed and yet, apart from looking a little older, everyone readily drops back in to shared stories about work, family and life in general. So, much as I would have preferred a Guinness over lunch rather than an orange juice, I’ll make do here with a virtual toast to colleagues and friends and catching up.

May 092008

I was at a funeral today. I had been asked to help out setting up the sound desk to play some cds through and mic up a singer and guitarist who were doing a tribute song.

You’ve probably already surmised that it was the funeral for a young person and Ross was just over eighteen when his car (which he had been licensed to drive for around 2 weeks) came into intimate contact with a tree, killing him, the sole occupant. The tree was on the other side of a sharp corner after a very long straight on a back road near me.

I can’t remember seeing the church so busy. Pretty much full downstairs and very busy in the gallery. Probably well over 500 people there, mostly young adults. The couple playing the tribute song were, I thought, very brave. Paul, the guitarist, was excellent. Josie is a beautiful singer and only lost it a little towards the end. The song they sang was “Hear you me (May angels lead you in)” (video here) and it was, I thought, a beautiful and fitting tribute. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

There were a couple of traditional hymns as well and one of them provided a major ‘cringe’ moment. The hymn was ‘One more step along the road I go’. The second verse begins:

“Round the corner of the road I turn,
More and more about the road I learn…”

It doesn’t really get any better either. I couldn’t help but reflect on the irony of the song given the circumstances of Ross’s death. It’s up there with ‘Colours of day’ at a cremation for cringe-factor (if you don’t know the song, look up the lyrics and you’ll see why).

That said, the whole funeral was sensitively handled with a good balance struck between allowing what friends and family wanted with the recognition that it was still a Christian service. Ross’s grandfather is an elder in our church but I’m not aware of any other church connections in the family.

And a final observation.

Wearing black to a funeral is very traditional and respectful. Given the age group of most of those gathered though, ‘something black’ generally meant ‘little black dress/skirt’.

I’m sure Ross would have approved.

Jan 192008

It’s been a pretty diverse week just past.

On Thursday I was at the ordination and induction of a friend. It was a lovely service, full of humour and joy tempered by the serious business of taking on responsibility for a parish. If taking on her first charge wasn’t enough, Louise also has to cope with it being a new linkage as well. That said, I’m sure she’ll do well. I remember meeting her just a few days after she had been called to the charge. Up until then I had always seen a ‘minister-in-training’ but on that day there was an air about her that said ‘minister’. It was more, I think, than simply being happy at being called to a charge. It was a real sense of ‘rightness’ and affirmation of God’s calling.

This morning (Saturday), I was at the funeral of a local minister who died very suddenly. That service too had joy and humour and not just a little seriousness as Geoff Smart was remembered, as husband, father and dearly-loved minister and friend to many. The church was packed out, a real tribute to the esteem in which he was held. I was there as part of Presbytery and I only really knew Geoff in passing. That said, he was the Presbytery person who ‘looked after’ ministry candidates and enquirers and I knew him in that regard. I found the service deeply moving and, like me, Geoff was a relative latecomer in his calling to the ministry. On hearing the tributes delivered today, one could do worse than look to his ministry as an inspiration.

I also had news that one of the church members in my district had died, so that’s a funeral visit I’ll need to do as soon as possible. Archie was a retired teacher and, whenever I visited, was always keen to hear how my studies were going and how my family were doing. His wife Pat is a lovely person and they were always a great joy to visit.

Archie spent his last days in Strathcarron Hospice and, I understand, had plenty of time to say his goodbyes. Not so Geoff, who died very suddenly. Both families will have to deal with deaths but with a very different set of circumstances. Both families have a faith and it is in that I pray they will find their comfort and strength.