Funeral thoughts by Christopher Idle
AND HAVING listened and talked with the family and covered hymns, psalms, music and much else, I find in my hand a small piece of paper, torn or cut from something, often another funeral service sheet. ‘We’d just like you to read this, Vicar, says the widow or somebody, ‘We think it’s rather nice.’
You don’t even have to look, you know exactly what is there. ‘Death’, it will say against all the evidence before your eyes, ‘is nothing at all’, and so forth – words by Henry Scott Holland, author of “Judge eternal, throned in splendour”, sometime Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, died (if that is the word) 1918.
In that situation, some clergy say “Thank you so much, that will be perfectly splendid”. Others mutter something about readings already chosen, or a question of time, or (at a push) suggest that Uncle Charlie may like to read it, and then make sure that Uncle Charlie’s mike isn’t quite switched on and in any case his rendition is followed by a good chunk of 1 Corinthians 15, louder and clearer, just to set the record straight. There may be some who simply say “No, we’re not having that rubbish, this is a Christian burial”, and leave it at that.
You find the lines displayed in the windows of Funeral Directors, or given out with their package of resources and advice, or arriving on cards of condolence, or in anthologies of comforting verse. In such situations, pastoral sensitivity often finds itself struggling with the truth and the gospel, bereavement may be the scene of some of our better compromises, but out Christian concern must stretch beyond coping with events at the cemetery. To put it no higher, we want among other thing the longer-term good of the bereaved.
For unless we are Christian Scientists we will hardly say that cancer, or pain, is nothing at all: nor that hunger, famine, drowning or murder have no substance in reality. So why death? The whole mourning process, which we are slowly learning to respect, depends for its value on recognising that death is something. Indeed, it is a monstrous thing, it changes everything. You could argue from Genesis 3 that change was of the essence of death. The flowers, the clothes, the tears, the hearse and the cost of it all alike proclaim the enormity of death’s intrusion into our lives. It is to be expected, planned for, and dealt with; that does not make it natural, normal, welcome or wanted. It is often painful, traumatic, heartbreaking, divisive or cruel; it can change homes, friends, families and fortunes; it is not platitude to say that much will never be the same again.
To pretend otherwise, even in the week of the funeral, is neither kind nor pious, it is no help to say what must soon be unsaid. What Scott Holland’s words have done is to encourage and intensify the mechanism of denial. That may be part of the secret of its popularity.
And without reading his lines so literally that we make him a spiritualist, it is hard to see how any widow or widower could marry again, and still take them seriously. “Whatever we were to each other, that we are still… Life is the same as it ever was”; this sits uneasily with the words of our Lord, as with actual human experience. As for concluding with the staggering half-truth that “All is well” – part of our ministry is to teach what the Gospels teach; that without repentance, and without Christ, all is very far from well, in this world or the next.
The Prayer Book Litany prays for deliverance from sudden death. By 1980 and its shorter-lived ASB, this had become “from dying unprepared”; both are Christian aspirations. The pagans, by contrast, like to go suddenly, since they assume there is nothing to prepare for. The supreme happiness, if we have to die at all, is to do it while occupied in one of our favourite things, be it gardening, shopping, watching Coronation Street, or screaming at the referee.
Was it, I wonder, something to do with the so-called Great War which prompted Scott Holland’s words? Perhaps someone will write in to say they were penned long before that. But that war did produce some strange theologies. The realism of Judge eternal, from 1907, sits oddly beside the sentimental escapism of the lines under our scrutiny.
And yet these phrases also gain wide acceptance because they clearly touch a sensitive human chord. They speak to the heart in a way that some of our more orthodox phrases and verses do not. The same may be true of ‘Jerusalem’ on the one hand and ‘The old rugged cross’ on the other.
But warmth is always a poor substitute for truth, nor does it last so long. And the way to warn people off them may not be to come down with a heavy hand, or even to try more subtle (?) means of evasion, but to try to produce something better. Or at least, some lines, which will do what ‘Death is nothing at all’ does, without the dishonesty or superstition which that embodies.
Can it be done? For what it is worth, here is one attempt. Anyone is welcome to use it, or for that matter to adapt or improve it; it can certainly be adjusted for particular people and places. You may be able to suggest other less well known options. Only please don’t blame New Directions for any new heresies it introduces, or pastoral disasters it precipitates, in the last resort, which presumably death is, the Pastor must pray, love and decide.
Death is sometimes our enemy, sometimes our friend.
As an enemy, it may shatter our lives, cut short our time, diminish our families and circle of friends We do not often invite it to come, notrchoose the time of its arrival. In this world we do have enemies, the Scriptures says death is the last.
Yet for the Christian, even death has lost its sting; Christ has made it a friend in spite of itself. Its victory is empty; its triumph will soon pass; it cannot have the last word. But it may still become our helper; not only a milestone but a signpost. It may lead us back to God if we have wandered away, or towards him if we have often been distant.
Death is a time for listening. Listening to friends, reading their words, listening to memories, hearing their music, listening to God in the quiet of my heart.
Death is a time for speaking. Telling the joys, memories past, telling of hopes, partly fulfilled; telling of growing and travelling, learning and finding, laughter and tears, a time for talk and a time for stories.
Death is a time for silence. When the words fail, sitting alone or quiet with my friends, watching or waiting, thinking and looking, the silence of prayer.
Death is a time for loving. Love never fails, love to the end; love all who love me and those who do not; love to heal wounds, love to accept, love to build bridges, love to forgive and know I’m forgiven. Love that is from God; God who is love; God who has first loved me.
Christopher Idle is Associate Minister of Christ Church, Old Kent Road in the diocese of Southwark.