Ian McCormack ponders funeral ministry in post-Christian England

Leading Funerals well
Robert Atwell

Canterbury Press, 160pp, pbk

978 1848256668, £16.99

The phone rings. ‘Hello Father, it’s Deadman and Sons Funeral Directors here. We’ve got a family would like to have a funeral in St Luke’s next Tuesday at 11am. Is that ok?’ ‘I’m afraid not,’ I reply. ‘We’ve got builders in church that day.

‘Oh. Well we’ve booked the slot at the cemetery, you see.’ ‘Well, you shouldn’t have done without asking about the availability of the church first’. ‘Well, I’ll have to rearrange things then, but the family won’t be very happy…’. And so it continues.

This sort of conversation will, I suspect, be familiar to parish clergy up and down the country. And although I am lucky enough in my parish to work primarily (and closely) with professional, courteous and respectful funeral directors, I have enough dealings with others to know just how frustrating this kind of encounter can be. And so it would have been good if the author of this otherwise illuminating guide to funeral ministry had emphasised a little more forcefully what he acknowledges in passing: that just as there are good clergy and bad clergy, so too there are good funeral directors and bad funeral directors. The very best have the pastoral care of the bereaved and a suitable funeral for the deceased at heart, and therefore do everything in their power to ensure that things run as smoothly as possible – including tasks as simple as picking up the phone to the Vicar to see when his church is available before making promises to the family, and a booking at the cemetery. The less good, well – don’t. So although the criticisms that are made against (a minority of) clergy here are no doubt valid, a little greater empathy with the multifarious pressures under which parish clergy work would not have gone amiss. Unlike funeral directors, dealing with funerals is just one strand among many with which we deal on a daily basis!

In the world of Common Tenure I was also a little alarmed to find the author – a diocesan bishop – quote uncritically the complaint of a funeral director: ‘Nobody begrudges [clergy] holidays and time off, but why does ‘day off’ translate as ‘uncontactable?’ I would have thought it axiomatic that if I am being contacted by funeral directors I am not benefiting fully from a day off. Here and elsewhere, Bishop Atwell seems to assume that all parishes are large concerns with a wide range of willing and able staff (paid or voluntary) able to assist the incumbent in every aspect of funeral ministry from dealing with diary bookings and fees to post-funeral visiting. But the reality in many parishes is very different.

I have perhaps been a little unfair in detailing my criticisms of Peace at the Last at the beginning of this review, since it is in many ways a helpful, informative and at times profound book. For example, the question of civil celebrants or humanist ‘ministers’ conducting increasing numbers of funerals is one which colleagues and I have discussed frequently. I concur with Bishop Atwell that so much depends on the how the funeral director puts the question to the family: an affirmative answer to a question such as ‘would you like us to find you a minister?’ might be taken as permission to use a civil celebrant, even if the family and many of the mourners did not quite mean that and are still expecting the Twenty-Third Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. It is here that good, professional relationships between clergy and funeral directors are indeed so important, so that we can do our best to ensure the bereaved get the funeral they really want for their loved one. And perhaps it is time for us to embrace the modern world as well: a deanery-sponsored advert in the local newspaper saying simply ‘Ask for the vicar!’ would go a long way to giving people the words they need in order to ask for and get the services of their parish priest.

There is much else to commend this book. I found the section on ‘the questions children ask’ particularly helpful. On a more mundane but equally important level, the checklist for preparations for a funeral in church is comprehensive and clear. Useful appendices give details of the relevant parts of canon law, sample paperwork, liturgical resources and a helpful glossary and short bibliography.

Fundamentally though, this book will be useful if it prompts and aids a grown-up discussion about the nature, purpose and value of funeral ministry in twenty-first century Britain. In parishes where there may be three or four funerals a week in church, it is easy for clergy and PCCs to present this as a valuable tool for mission, for pastoral work, and for engagement with the wider community. And on balance I think they are right to do so. But I do just wonder sometimes whether we are not kidding ourselves a little here. Does funeral ministry actually work as a tool for mission and pastoral care? Do people really value the ministry of the church at times of bereavement, or is it rather more a matter of convention and convenience? Most importantly of all, who will pay for it all in the future, when many more people expect the Church to be there for them in times of crisis than are prepared to pay for the upkeep of the buildings and the stipends of the clergy for the rest of the time?

There are no easy solutions to these issues. Peace at the Last does not pretend otherwise. But it does, by and large, ask the right questions. ND