Every death is followed by a funeral service or ceremony, which marks a formal leave-taking of the deceased by the immediate community, and provides a seemly way of committing the corpse to either burial or cremation. This ‘rite of passage’ is held within a few days of the death. Sometimes a memorial service is also appropriate after a longer interval, which is a distinctive kind of service that is not a rite of passage. This distinction between funerals and memorial services has tended to become blurred with funerals becoming no more than memorial services.
Memorial services are held when the wider community wants to make some acknowledgement of the life of the deceased and their contribution to it. An obvious example is a College service to commemorate a former Principal, the address being an important element. Normally it will not be a sermon expounding a Scriptural message from God to the congregation nor an attempt to give an account of the whole life and character of the deceased. It will concentrate on the significance of the deceased for the particular community. Hymns and readings will tend to reflect the special interests or preferences of the deceased, and the whole service will be stamped with his or her personality.
A funeral service is a rite of passage, marking the end of the earthly life of the deceased, and corresponding with infant baptism which marked its beginning. The emphasis is on the life and personality of the deceased as a whole, and not just with his or her contribution to a community. A common trend now includes a tribute to the deceased that constitutes the entire content of any sermon or address. This practice is questionable on several grounds.
Is it appropriate for any human being to sum up and evaluate the life of another? Surely this is God’s prerogative and only he can make a just and balanced assessment. We cannot presume to anticipate the final judgement. A memorial service may properly concentrate on the life of the deceased in relation to the life of the community, but a comprehensive assessment theoretically appropriate at a funeral is impossible for us to make. It is better left to God. The inadequacy of tributes expressed is often apparent in a minister’s ignorance of the deceased. It can place an impossible strain on a relative or friend invited to make the tribute, that the hearers feel was inadequate.
There are more profound reasons for questioning the wisdom of this practice. The Introduction to the 1964 report of the Liturgical Commission to the Series 2 Burial of the Dead, states that it is ‘to remind us of the awful certainty of our own coming death and judgement’. That note of divine judgement is rarely sounded at all in contemporary funeral services. It has been eclipsed by the tribute, which, as a result of the dictum de mortuis nil nisi bonum , nearly always takes the form of a eulogy, suggesting that the deceased was a veritable saint. This underlines the imbalance that is almost inevitable in a tribute offered so near the time of death. This is not suggesting that defects of the deceased should be mentioned to redress the balance. The note of judgement is best covered in psalms, readings, and prayers, where it is presented in the general rather than the particular. Psalm 130 at a funeral, expresses the depths of human frailty at the extremities of life, the searching nature of God’s judgement, but also quiet hope and confidence in God’s power to redeem. The omission of this psalm from Common Worship funerals is disquieting.
Other purposes of Funerals
Also, a funeral must ‘proclaim the glory of our risen life in Christ here and hereafter’ and ‘make plain the eternal unity of Christian people, living and departed, in the risen and ascended Christ’. A Christian funeral proclaims the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus, its pivotal importance in Christian faith and life, and its relevance as the ground of our belief that we are called to share in Christ’s risen life both here (essentially through Baptism – see Romans 6.3–5) and hereafter. This is the Christian perspective in which the death of the individual Christian is seen.
It is expressed in appropriate readings, prayers and hymns, but surely also in the sermon, which so often has been replaced by a tribute. In Common Worship, ‘The purpose of the sermon is to proclaim the gospel in the context of the death of this particular person’ and encourages the separation of the tribute from the sermon, the former being optional but the latter obligatory. Often, Anglican funerals involve families who are neither believing nor practising Church members and those who firmly reject Christian belief (for whom the appropriateness of a Christian funeral service is itself questionable). Most bereaved families probably hover between agnosticism and the first inklings of faith, at least in questions of death and what lies beyond it. The wider congregation also includes such people. A funeral sermon constitutes a glorious opportunity to proclaim the Christian Gospel and its relevance to the deep questions of life and death, in a situation where its relevance is apparent to every mortal person, even if this has to be done with sensitivity, bearing in mind the limited capacity of many in the congregation to receive it.
Rite of Passage
A funeral is a rite of passage, which the 1964 Report claims is to ‘secure the reverent disposal of the corpse’ and to ‘commend the deceased to the care of our heavenly Father’. The focal points are the Commendation at the end of the service, and the Committal of the body at the grave or crematorium. As worship, it is clearly centred on God not on the deceased or the mourners. It is concerned with life and death, with God as its source and its goal, and with what lies beyond death, themes best addressed in the universal rather than the particular. Psalms, readings, hymns and prayers should reflect the occasion rather than the personal preferences of the deceased (such as a favourite hymn). Personal references to the deceased are best included in a parenthetic and allusive manner, in passing references to the person during the sermon, which is essentially about the Gospel. Deliberate recollection of the individual should be in the prayer of thanksgiving for the life of the departed in the Common Worship Funeral Service, where details can be mentioned, followed by silence. Here the congregation may treasure personal memories of the deceased, and any need to attempt an overall appreciation is obviated. It is an opportunity for brief mention of a particular contribution of the individual to the community, such as may be elaborated appropriately at a later memorial service.
Dr Gelston is Emeritus Reader in the University of Durham