Funerealities II

MY WIFE ALWAYS says that if she were a bishop (and under the present dispensation she is a more likely candidate than any other member of the editorial board) her first move would be to spend a week, sitting anonymously, at the back of the Chapel of the local crematorium. This, she believes, at a stroke, would tell her more about her clergy than almost anything else.

Of course she would do the usual round of confirmations, naturally. But she suspects that at such “dos”, where she would be expected to preach and then spend a wholly disproportionate amount of time glad handing the families of enthusiastic neophytes in an uncharacteristically well attended church, she would glean little of pastoral use. Even the most hostile, broken down or incompetent wretch can generally raise his game to a little courtesy and even unctuousness in the presence of the purple. Nor would she be overly delayed or deceived by the confidential files on her priests and priestesses. Those “objective” references, composed of carefully phrased and unchallengeable gossip, combined with obfuscation, an Anglican art form, must be largely worthless in her view. How else could it be, she reasons, that so many of the best priests have retired unused by the national Church while so many with a track record of a doctrinal and moral roguery have risen to high office?

No, it would be a week at the back of the crem. for my domestic manager and life partner.

There she would learn several things in a very short space of time.

1) Has this priest done his homework? Has he spent time with these people so that he has some hope of leading their hearts in worship?

2) Does he make any connection with these people before, during or after the service?

3) Does he understand how great an opportunity for evangelism this pastoral office is?

4) Does he preach the gospel to these people in their hour of need? What does he actually believe?

5) Is he using anything that approximates to an order of service known to any Church in Christendom?

6) After half an hour of his ministrations, are these people more or less likely to believe in God/ come to Church even twice a year?

There are other questions but these will do to be getting on with.

And they are important because, for most priests, these services will be the only time in their ministry when they have the undivided attention of those who never come – the lapsed, the agnostic, the atheist, the other faiths, the curious, the never heard and so on.

Since the Protestant churches of Western Europe permitted and even encouraged the pagan practice of cremation, the priest has had to do this most difficult and rewarding task on alien territory (soulless “chapels”) on a conveyor belt and against the clock. Nevertheless his commitment to this task is instructive and my wife is right, as in so many things, to begin her episcopate in this way.

Let me take you (and “her indoors”) to the wholly imaginary county of Bertfordshire and the all too likely setting of North Bert’s crematorium chapel. What might you encounter in an average day?

There is the man who never visits the families of the deceased and completes the formalities in under eight minutes, on average, staring fixedly at a spot on the gallery wall well above the gaze of the less than thrilled congregation.

There is the man who has trouble with names- always a few bob on the side amongst the less reverent undertaking staff as to whether he will actually commit the person in the box or a total stranger at the vital moment.

Pause for a moment in the West Chapel to meet the priestess in a green shirt and floral stole (and handbag) who gives a moving account of childbirth in order to draw parallels with death. Not wholly awry but ending up more as an apologia for reincarnation than the resurrection.

And following her the senior priest who always begins his 14 minute funeral service thus:-

“You all have in your mind a picture of X (the deceased). That is your picture and I’m not going to say anything about X because you know him/her.”

Roughly translated this means I know nothing about the deceased and have not made the slightest effort to find out. He continues:

“I’m going to read something” (This will almost certainly not be scripture; probably old Scott Holland’s hideous lie, “Death is nothing at all.”)

The service then continues with a hymn- usually a solo. Then we go back to the “liturgy”.

“I’m not intending to lead this time. Please don’t feel I’m imposing on you. I am non- directive here. I’m just going to say a little prayer but don’t feel that you have to join in.” And so on.

All this is performed as an audition for Obadiah Slope.

There is a brief respite when we get to the man from a neighbouring town who always gives Jesus a favourable mention and, it is clear, no one thinks any the worse of him for that. And back to familiar territory. A young male Curate, who has clearly been let loose without the slightest training, is trying really hard, but confusing dampness and emotional angst with compassion. He comes within hailing distance of mentioning the Risen Lord but then stalls and panics at the prospect of such unseemly commitment.

We move outside to the aftermath of another priestess funeral. She is standing well away from the mourners, unusual this, and engaging the organist in conversation.

“You probably noticed that I didn’t say anything about what happens next.” she confides.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I did.”, replies the organist.

“Well”, trumps the plain speaking priestess, “that’s because we don’t know, do we?”

She is curate to a man who regularly talks about Jesus “understanding our difficulties and making the same mistakes.” Here is a sinful Christ fully in solidarity with Adam but not much use as a Saviour. Scarcely surprising that this trainee, then, should feel unable to compromise an honourable agnosticism by mentioning the resurrection hope.

All is not lost however. The day is brightened by two clergy. One man an elf-like pensioner priest who, although his surplice looks like it has doubled as a pocket handkerchief for a fortnight, has clearly done his homework, knows the people and speaks gently to God in prayer for them and to them expounds the gospel. The other is an immaculately be-suited Catholic priest look-alike who turns out to be a free church minister who does the best pastoral work and Christian funerals in the area. He is not looking to transfer to what he perceives to be a biblically disobedient Church.

The day finishes with a young male priest who gets the family to write personal notes for him to read out. This is always a dangerous tactic, and so it proves today. The minister finds himself wallowing in execrable prose describing a life that has been, to all intents and purposes, a complete waste of time. The most memorable moment proceeds thus:

“You know, Fred’s great passion in life was his daily newspaper. He would get it every day and read it cover to cover! Because, as he would say ,” (suitable pause for quintessence of Fred’s philosophy and life strategy) “if you’re going to buy a paper you might as well read it!”

Amen, brother!

Well, as you probably gather, the crematorium may be fictional but sadly the examples are not. They are neither the best nor the worst of what happens but all too typical. When I showed the above copy to undertaker friends, different companies, both Christians, they offered to furnish me with far more horrific examples than my collected observations.

With the exception of the two bright spots, can we discern any common fault lines?

It is clear that many clergy are uncomfortable outside their safe havens – church buildings. They are not good at preaching in the marketplace or relating outside the confines of the institution. It is my view that we were foolish, years ago, to sell the pass to the crematoria on theological, liturgical and financial grounds, but that is water under the bridge. We still have to do the job.

Preparing a good funeral requires prayer, time, heart and listening ears. There are no short cuts and too much of our work in this area is either ill-disciplined or, in the worst cases, almost wholly absent.

There is a worrying lack of confidence in what we are about. Many funerals are characterised by a mixture of timidity and embarrassment about the gospel. This is disastrous. If you asked a plumber to come in and mend your tap you would not expect him to make pleasant conversation, read some poetry and leave the washer leaking. People come to a funeral to be led in worship, mourning, thanksgiving and prayer – to be given or reminded of the gospel hope for them as well as the deceased. When they receive it, even the hard-bitten non-believers, they are grateful. When they do not receive it they feel, frankly, betrayed and abandoned. Too many funerals have ceased to provide this basic service and have transmogrified into that much-to-be-avoided sentimental genre – the memorial service. A belief-free zone where a religious building is rented to glorify a human being rather than God and applaud the family’s musical taste. The preachment which, while giving thanks to God for the life now returned to Him, should be about Him upon whom our life depends, is too often a badly written obituary notice for the deceased and, by implication and default, for God too. I hope to God when my time comes the service will not be conducted by some fool bleating on about what a lovely man I was! (Friends assure me this is unlikely). Give me a decent Requiem and plead the Cross of Christ for another sinful wretch utterly dependent on His mercy.

And that’s another thing: the prayers. Why is there no mention of sin? I have never buried anyone who wasn’t a sinner. How can I not mention the soul’s greatest need when leading prayer?

I have only once had someone tell me their loved one was not a sinner and that had its lighter side. In committing the soul of a middle aged man’s very elderly mother, at her deathbed, sin, forgiveness and the blood of Christ crept into the prayer. Afterwards he very gently chided me. “Vicar, my mother never committed a sin in her life.” Knowing how much she had done for him in terrible circumstances in his early years I understood his difficulty. I also knew that she had been an absolute tartar over the last 20 odd years while he had cared for her and he had once, not entirely humorously, asked me if I would like to take her to the vet! Still, death makes sentimentalists of us all.

A week later at the funeral I prayed unchanged and his mixture of filial guilt and loyalty had re-connected with reality and much of the wake was spent in therapeutic and often hysterical accounts of his mother’s outrageous behaviour.

A priest needs to remember that if he gets sucked into the eulogy business he will be exposed as a fraud. God knows what the dead man is like, the congregation knows what he was like. If you recite a hagiography the only person you will be fooling is yourself. The acknowledgement of the deceased’s status as a sinner does not need to be wreathed in Presbyterian gloom. We are there, usually, because of our love for this particular sinner and we speak affectionately and realistically about him in prayer knowing that our affection and realism, however great, cannot match that of the Almighty. “For God so loved the world…”

We are there to look for God’s mercy for ourselves and for him and the reconciliation which, in Christ, transcends the borders of life and death. Only when we preach and pray with conviction about these matters are we of any assistance to the mourners or the deceased. Much of what passes for worship at the crematorium springs from a lack of confidence or even clerical agnosticism. It is more apology than apologia.

It is for this reason that we seem only too happy to collude with that spiritualistic fantasy world where Grandad is now cheerfully sunning himself on a cloud or enjoying a slightly extended version of the Holiday Programme. Any mention of the judgment, eternity or purgatory (Catholics only) would be quite out of place with the general tenor.

Such evasions are made possible by the order of service, or rather the lack of it. Here, and this applied to even the best of these services, any sense of liturgical purpose, form, structure or direction was undetectable. It is scarcely surprising then that, after years of experiencing this sort of chaos and the unhappy results of it, many laity turn up armed with their own programme of events. This will routinely include excruciating poetry, a favourite pop song which we will be expected to set aside five minutes for in the middle of the service as an aid to meditation, and a glowing family tribute. This latter will, it is proposed, be given by a particularly strong family member or prepared for you by the most literate of the mourners. Either of these is full of booby traps especially if the death is in a broken home and there is “unfinished business”. When the mourners discover that there is actually an order, a purpose, a task in the liturgy, which the priest is happy to personalise but not subvert or destroy they are, at first, incredulous and then relieved . They were not to know any better, of course, as the defining moment of the Anglican funeral, Princess Diana’s service, told them exactly the opposite. There they were treated to a kind of Desert Island Discs with all of the problems outlined above. A supreme opportunity to preach to the nation and pastor the people was declined. (Was there really no priest in the realm who could have taken on this task?) We endured solemn family axe grinding and various celebrity spots with prayers by a man who doesn’t believe in praying for the departed and who, only recently, had told all clergy to drop Diana from the prayer-list while she was alive. The music, most of it, was lovely but whatever it was, it wasn’t a funeral service. The Princess got that, if anywhere, at the requiem at Westminster Cathedral or in the private requiem that was rumoured to have been celebrated, at the family’s request, by the Bishop of London.

Diana’s funeral didn’t start the rot, it merely rubber-stamped the provisional chaos. The problem for the ordinary priest is that he doesn’t have the glorious music to hide behind at the crem. and disguise of the bankruptcy of the Church in its use of the funeral liturgy.

The proper and confident use of strong liturgy, as most priests have cause to know and all congregations should have cause to give thanks, will more than compensate for the inadequacies in the celebrants energy or creativity on any particular day. It will also, unsurprisingly, strengthen his faith and enable his pastoring of the flock. And because the liturgy is primarily the Word of God it will, in the mouth of a believer, catch fire and leap the gap between the priest and countless unknown mourners and lead them into the Presence of the One whose work is their salvation.

So, to return to the beginning of this piece. If, in a few short years when equal rights have taken their final curative toll of the Church of England, you should look up from your standard funeral address, thought, poem, enabling, counselling text at the crem. If you should look up and see a woman in a purple tank top and black chinos staring quizzically at you over her editorial/episcopal pencil and note pad, I refer you to questions 1-6 with which we began. It is, after all, for your good and the good of all His Church. From my personal experience I can tell you that she doesn’t expect to be popular but she is confident of results.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath, in the diocese of S. Alban’s