Saturday, May 13, 2017

"Who is the funeral for?"

That's an oft-set essay question during training for ministry, but really you'd think that I would know the answer 14 years after ordination, having conducted on average one a week for 11 of those years.
500 funerals and I still don't know!

My theology suggests that an all-loving, all-forgiving God is not going to rethink his plans about anyone's eternal destiny on the basis of a Requiem Mass, no matter how well-attended, how beautifully conceived and offered. God's will is that none shall be lost, and so though it makes perfect sense to continue a loving prayerful relationship with those who are gone from us, I don't on the whole expect that prayers for the departed will materially affect them, though in God's providence perhaps those prayers, expressions of our on-going love, may be diverted to that time when they are most needed.

So it makes sense for me to pray - and to celebrate the Eucharist too, because that is where we can once more eat together, as we experience a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where all find their place. But I don't really imagine that the funeral is actually for the departed and, while I'm certain that God rejoices to see loving relationships wherever they are expressed, I don't think that we gather for God's benefit either.
Common Worship says that we are there to remember and to give thanks, to commend, commit and seek comfort - and that is what I tell my families too. "We're here" , I suggest,  "to say thank you to God for X and to X for all they have been and all they have done, to ask God to care for them til you are together again, and to care for you, because this is hard and it hurts, and we're here for your friends to do what they can to show love and care as well. "
That sounds OK - even convincing - and for the most part my funeral families seem to go away having received the comfort and strength that they need, for the moment at least.

I'm not sure that my own experience altogether matches those expectations, though that may be as much to do with the one-size-fits-all impersonality of the Book of Common Prayer service for the Burial of the Dead which marked my parents' passings. No eloquent tributes, indeed, no opportunity to even name the departed - and precious little comfort, beyond the reference to that "sure and certain hope" at the committal. The modern Roman rite is no cosier, nor does it allow any scope to celebrate all that has been at this moment of farewell....and yet it would never occur to me to suggest, even for a moment, that the funeral was somehow unnecessary. 

It is hugely important that those who are left behind can consciously, deliberately, hand over the departed into those open, everlasting arms, and ask for the help they so badly need with the onward journey.

Interestingly, it seems even more important if you are on the periphery - mourning, right enough, but not part of the inner circle. 
So I found it deeply painful and distressing that I could not be with my Gloucester diocesan family when, together, they said Goodbye to Bishop Michael. To be absent, even on beautiful Iona, felt, in anticipation, like an act of colossal ingratitude, a failure to "pay respects", a with-holding of the one gift that I could still offer, which was so very much +Michael's due.
But there was no getting round it. 
I had promises to keep and I knew in my heart of hearts that +Michael would not for a moment have approved of one of his priests failing to honour an existing commitment....and after all, I would only have been there for my sake, really.

So, I found rituals of my own to mark that day.
I re-read his final letter, with its emphasis on the Communion of Saints, as I prepared to celebrate the Eucharist.
I consciously carried him in my heart, my prayers and my thoughts, and heard his voice joined with the multitude whom no-one can number at the Sanctus - and later, in the beautiful brokenness of the Nunnery ruins, I prayed aloud the Commendation, as I knew others were doing in the Cathedral I loved.

And those rituals, that conscious letting go, was by God's grace, enough. 
I discovered for myself that when you ask, you do receive "strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow".


liz crumlish said...

Kathryn, I will always be grateful that you honoured a commitment when you were so torn. In that, and in the way you were chaplain to colleagues last week, you certainly paid tribute to his legacy of love and wisdom. Praying that you may find peace and solace.

UKViewer said...

I always believe that a funeral is for the benefit of those who've lost the deceased.

If a celebration of life is needed, surely a separate memorial service is the right way to go?

My experience of military deaths on duty, is exactly that. The funeral met the needs of the family and close friends, and a memorial service met the needs of the wider community, ie. the Regiment that he or she served with.

Martha Spong said...

Your ministry was a gift to all of us on Iona, and particularly to me. Thank you, thank you.