Friday, 4 January 2013


I have attended three funerals in three days this week, all of them religious funerals - two Christian and one Jewish;  one as part of my work, one as a mourner, and one with both hats on.  Each of them was well and sensitively taken, by ministers / rabbi who had known the person of whom they were speaking, and who did well in expressing the thoughts and hopes of everyone there.  Each ceremony was special in its own way, and expressed something of the personality, achievements and life journey of the person remembered, not only in what was actually said, but just in the way it was all done.

Funerals today are rightly much more personal than in times past - than thirty years ago or less, in fact, when I was taking my first steps in ministry.  Families and other mourners are much less ready to simply accept the liturgy 'as set', and even when that is the case, as, quite properly, at the country church funeral I attended last week, that liturgy must be used as a framework within which a very personal tribute is made and farewells said.  A funeral, whether religious or secular, must be a celebration of a person and a life - not hiding or trying to avoid the sadness of parting, for of course that is a big part of what's happening, but also linking together memories and stories, and, I think, helping those who attend to come away from that place with some positive thoughts about their own life and about the meaning of life, whatever religious faith they may or may not have, and whatever their concept of what lies beyond death.

Anyway, three leaders of funeral services helped achieve that for me this week (and not only for me, for after each service I heard many very positive and thankful comments).  To lead a funeral service isn't an easy task, I feel (and, indeed, know).  You have to know the person being remembered (even if that knowledge is dependent on the stories told you by others), but, however well you do know that person yourself, the words you say cannot be just your own words:  they must be appropriate to the gathered memories of all who come.  Similarly, you have to have some sense yourself of the emotion of loss, of the ending of this life and the parting of ways, but you do not have the luxury of being swamped or overwhelmed by such emotion.  And in a religious funeral (these days, anyway) you have to open and lead prayer in a way that will not prevent those for whom prayer is not their thing from remaining part of what's going on.  In a secular funeral the reverse is true - you have the challenge of finding words that are not religious but which in their use will not exclude those who cannot help but bring their own faith to this event.

It occurs to me that I can think of some funeral takers who use virtually the same format every time they lead a ceremony, so that for those (like me) who get to hear it more than once or twice it comes across as more or less a routine exercise, with little more than the name of the person changing.  I am thinking of full services at the crematorium here:  I accept that in a church service there is more reason to stay within the bounds set by the required funeral liturgy - though these days even that includes many options and variations, both in the words used and in the "staging", if you like.  I have always been grateful for the immense range of resource material that is available, and it's there to be used - but I do believe that my planning process for each service must always begin with little more than a blank page, and with some careful and sympathetic listening.

After all, it's something at which you only get one shot.

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