One morning about 10 days ago the phone rang three times in swift succession, each time with a different funeral director on the line...and so it began, three weeks in which most of ordinary parish life has had to go on hold as I deal with matters of rather more significance than the late arrival of the decorators.
I have to say, there's something quite disturbing about a run of funerals like this. Whenever you lift your eyes to the horizon, there's another one coming in sight (though I now have just two booked for next week, so perhaps the worst is over).
Each one, of course, is of huge significance to family and friends and part of the priestly role, I believe, is to stand as a reminder that each is also of huge significance to God.
W., beloved "little granny" of her great grandchildren, full of years and leaving so many happy memories
E., sociable and loved in his community as in his family
B., a gentle soul who loved music, autobiograhy, and the simple life
P., ballroom dancer whose last years were blighted by dementia
R., perfectionist craftsman, patient father, devoted husband, whose life lost its meaning with the death of his wife a year ago
....and so it goes on, - with other names, other stories, gratitude and grief.
But it's quite difficult to keep track of so many lives and deaths, when most of them are of people of whom your only knowledge is via a visit or two before the service, and then, of course, the day itself. That opportunity to engage with strangers at a time of deep and abiding need is one of the great privileges of ministry in the Church of England. Anyone living and dying in my parishes is entitled to my ministry, and even in this secular age a number opt for this....and always, no matter what the circumstances, we find ourselves standing on holy ground. Often the family have absolutely no language with which to articulate what has happened them - or when we meet they paint pictures of the hereafter that seem far from God's truth as I understand it. My job here is to honour their search for meaning while being as clear as I can be about the framework of faith on which I stake my all...and in the liturgy I find myself speaking words of power, words which really do make a difference, which achieve what they profess. When we meet I tell them my understanding of the task of the funeral - to look back with gratitude (and with an awareness of the guilt that so often prevails in the face of loss, to allow space for repentence too) and then, facing the cross in the light of the Resurrection, to look forward with hope. I talk about the support we can give one another by our presence, our love, our prayers...and about the sense I have that this work that we do together is among the most important things that there is to be done.
On the day, I tell the story, pray the prayers and leave the rest to God, confident that all shall be well. I'm horrified at how often families seem surprised that I speak with care and with conviction. They say things like
"You sounded so sincere..." as if there are clergy out there who would walk rough shod through these fragile griefs, would belittle the enormity of loss, or throw away the family's great chance to say "thank you" for the one they gather to mourn.
This ministry is so very precious. Even amid the current tide of deaths, I need to pause to note the privilege of standing beside so many people as I try to remind them that God is with them too.