Saturday, February 24, 2007

Rather disquieting

At a recent meeting of clergy and other "service providers" we were sharing our collective sadness that not more of the people in our communities opt for a funeral service in church. The joy of being the "established church" is that we are the default denomination for anyone and everyone who might just want God specifically involved at crunch points in life.So we conduct a fair number of funerals for people whom we've never known, - and that is a great privilege and blessing. But we know there are many times when we're asked to lead a service in the crem, and for assorted reasons it feels less than satisfactory. It can work fine, for a small, simple gathering, but at the local crematorium, funerals are scheduled at half hour intervals, which means that in practice you have 20 minutes in which to actually conduct the service, give thanks for a life, offer prayers of commendation and committal.The crem chapel is neither large nor particularly beautiful. It seats about 100 and can cram in up to 250 standing, but particularly if the service is for one who died untimely, it can be a real struggle accommodating the mourners...and if, as is traditional, they follow the coffin in to the chapel, then up to 10 minutes of the precious half hour may be taken up with traffic flow.

So, we were wondering why funeral directors don't, in those circumstances, suggest the local church as a flexible alternative. We were a friendly group of clergy. Not a hard-liner among us. We all fall over ourselves to provide whatever the family wants, to give professional and sensitive care, to work with them to put together something that feels "real" for them. We avoid being over churchy, I don't think any of us has ever preached hell-fire and damnation,- and we care...goodness, how we care. (We pray for them too, of course - but that didn't seem a fruitful line to push in this context).

Despite this we were told, with only thinly veiled hostility,
"Families don't want the church involved.
They think you'll preach at them.
They don't want the vicar turning up on their doorstep for weeks afterwards"

What is disquieting is that the speaker had seen all of us "in action" several times, and was quick to add that we weren't like that, that we did a good job, were co-operative and obliging...but, once upon a time, an unknown clergyman had taken a funeral in which he had not mentioned the deceased by name at any point.
My suspicion is that this happened at least 20 years ago, - but it will take at least as long for the memory to be wiped out,- and meanwhile, from at least one influential quarter, the bereaved of the town will be discouraged from seeking the comfort of the church unless they specifically request it. And it seems that there's nothing that any of us can do about it.
Sobering, isn't it?


Songbird said...

That is distressing, indeed.

Tom said...

I not sure it is distressing simply an indication of how marginal the Church is to most people. I increasingly suspect that it is the latter category which is the problem and has been unintentionally abused in the past. In our eargerness to seem concerned and caring we have in practice been an embarressment particularly when as was once normal practice we clergy called unannounced. In this area three of the main Funeral directors now have their own chapels due to customer demand - so all the local churches are doing fewer and fewer funerals - my parish more than most cos I have the Crem just up the road and as crems go it is a good one. In the end I suspect the established church cannot continue to live of "Christendom practices" - and we take funeral for people we know personally.