Death and the Local Incumbent

A certain Bishop had just announced his retirement, and was being interviewed by the local BBC radio station. The presenter discussed with the Bishop some of the many achievements of his time in the diocese, and just as the show was ending, decided to ask the bishop if he had any regrets. “As a matter of fact, yes” said the bishop. “I can think of plenty of people I would like to have buried”.

Many incumbents feel that way about certain of their parishioners. One of the privileges of a parish priest is that he not only baptizes the newest members of the community, and prepares their parents for marriage (yes, frequently in that order), but he gets to have the last word at the funeral of the principal thorns in his flesh, provided he manages to outlive them.

At least, that used to be the case, in traditional Church of England parishes, where the funeral took place in the parish church, and the dead were promptly laid to rest in the churchyard outside. Another privilege of the parish priest was to jump up and down on the graves of misguided predecessors. One of mine disapproved of choirs, and actually disbanded ours….

The incumbent has, if he chooses to exercise it, the final say in how a funeral is to be conducted in his parish church. It is quite appropriate that this should be so. He has received formal training in theological college, how to care sensitively and pastorally for the needs of the bereaved family, and how to lead sometimes greatly distressed and grieving congregations in worship during the funeral service. The Church of England provides a dignified liturgy for this purpose, in the Book of Common Prayer (both 1662 and 1928) and, surprisingly, in the 1980 ASB. The priest is required to use one of these forms, in consultation with the family concerned. It is customary to agree on a choice of hymns and other music appropriate to the occasion.

Sadly, as I discover when attending funerals at away fixtures, the priest concerned frequently has no idea how to do any of these things competently, but considers himself sufficiently qualified to write a funeral liturgy of his very own devising. Little wonder that funeral directors, who are keen judges of the art, know which clergy to use and which to avoid, where possible. The Crematorium offers the funeral director the option of the Alternative Funeral, which funeral companies are increasingly trying to introduce into parish churches as well, all in the noble cause of giving Full Customer Satisfaction.

Consider: it is the funeral director who usually has the first contact with the bereaved family, and naturally wishes to please, as far as humanly possible, by satisfying every whim, and even suggesting a few into the bargain where the director has ideas of his own about what constitutes a memorable service. Once the suggestions have been made, to those who are naturally distressed and especially sensitive and vulnerable, they can assume the fixed and absolute quality of the laws of the Medes and Persians.

I can take you to a grave which contains an entire stereo/radio/hi-fi stack, which the occupant’s family devoutly assumed he would require in the afterlife. It is similar to the equipment which is used to play “I did it my way” or “When I’m sixty-four” or thousands of similar meaningful melodies in crematorium or cemetery chapels, up and down the land, every day of the week. One friend of mine plans to be interred in his beloved VW Beetle. The local grave digger should be able to retire on the overtime paid for that particular hole in the ground. It is the very flexibility offered by the crematorium or cemetery which has undermined the fundamental dignity of the English funeral – combined with the sheer ineptitude of too many of the clergy, who are too ill trained, ignorant or idle to ensure that when they are involved in planning a funeral, it becomes an occasion on which the Word of God is heard by those taking part. And in too many cases, it is left to the funeral director to shape the service, even those which take place in the parish church.

The most obvious example is the funeral address. In too many cases it is not a sermon at all, and is given by a friend or family member, extolling the virtues of the late departed like a pope in the act of beatifying a Virgin Martyr or a Doctor of the Church. Some of these are very entertaining. The funniest thing I have ever heard in a Church was a tribute to a departed huntsman, from a well-known sporting journalist. But it was not the Word of God. Even if the late lamented was something akin to a saint, with the sense of humour of a Frankie Howerd, the occasion is still a moment at which eternal truths should be pressed home to the congregation, gently and even subtly, while recalling the many virtues of a life which is now in consultation with its Maker.

I have already indicated my disapproval of music which is included for the sentimental reason that it was a favourite tune, whistled by the deceased on his way to work, or to collect his Lottery prize at the supermarket. Dreary hymns, abominably played, are just as bad. I once struggled through a funeral in a neighbouring parish during the interregnum there, wishing the organist would fall off his perch, rather than play another note. Those who witnessed the abominable spectacle will hardly forget it: the funeral director certainly won’t. Thankfully the new incumbent promptly sacked the organist, and all is now well there. But in some parishes it isn’t.

Legally speaking, a funeral which gives Christian comfort and hope to the living, and which honours the memory of the departed, is very much the responsibility of the priest concerned. In the parish church he has full authority to ensure that all is done in accordance with Christian practice and decency; and when invited to officiate elsewhere, the responsibility is hardly less. The opportunity to witness to the Resurrection is a heaven sent moment: one that should be used wisely and to the utmost at every Christian funeral.