Hallowed liturgy and care for the bereaved make our funerals special, argues Edward Dowler
‘It shall be the duty of every minister to bury, according to the rites of the Church of England, the corpse or ashes of any person deceased within his cure or of any parishioners or persons whose names are entered on the church electoral roll of his parish…’ Canon B38, 2.
For the great majority of clergy, as well as lay people who conduct funerals, this ministry is both a duty and a joy, as we seek to commend those who have died to God and to ‘weep with those who weep’ (Rom 12.15). As the Catholic philosopher John Finnis points out, funerals in one form or another are a human universal: ‘all (human societies) treat the bodies of dead members of the group in some traditional and ritual fashion different from their procedures for rubbish disposal’. And for members of local communities, funerals are of course vital (possibly unique) points of contact with the Church and with the Christian faith.
This ministry is of course conducted against a rapidly changing cultural backdrop. Only fifteen years ago, if the answer to the funeral director’s question, ‘was s/he religious?’ was ‘no’, then the default setting was ‘Church of England’. But, for better or worse, that has now changed. Whilst formerly, families had a basic choice between either a religious or so-called ‘Humanist’ funeral, the sharply increasing popularity of civil celebrants has opened a new range of options. Their particular attraction is an ability to make funerals specific to the deceased person. Although, unlike the ‘Humanists’ they are not explicitly atheistic, there is an increased emphasis away from religious observance, and towards ‘celebration of life’.
We should be realistic but also confident about this cultural change: not everyone wants what we offer but, as somebody once said: here we are, we can do no other.
The funeral’s high point is the prayer that commends the deceased to the love and mercy of God. It is for their sake that the funeral – whether a Mass or simpler funeral liturgy – primarily takes place. Whilst we aim to accompany, comfort and pray with relations and friends, they are not ultimately at the centre. Christian funerals therefore offer a unique ‘celebration of life’ because the primary focus is on the deceased person. For all that they may sometimes be a mixed blessing, the increasing popularity of eulogies at funerals can enhance this focus on the unique gift of God in this particular life.
Whilst civil celebrants to make funerals ‘more specific’ to the person who has died, Christian funerals offer a beloved liturgy which, even in revised form, comes down through generations of hallowed use, and is thus incomparably superior to any secular concoction on a computer one Thursday afternoon. The Common Worship funeral service, and variations, provide distinctive features such as the Collect, the reading of Scripture, a homily, the Lord’s Prayer, the Commendation and Committal. In funeral ministry, I personally like to be clear that I offer, and can only offer, this liturgical service: there can be no race to the bottom or any sense that it is an embarrassment. Having said this, of course, modern funeral rites also offer a flexible framework which can include, for example, a eulogy and the possibility of a variety of music, so long as this is appropriate – and carefully negotiated.
A disappointing recent development has been the tendency to opt for a small family cremation, followed by a memorial service in church. The reasons for this can be complex: some cannot bear the physical proximity of a dead body for a moment longer than absolutely necessary. Whilst we must be sensitive – and mindful of strenuous family demand – funerals celebrated in the traditional order give an unparalleled emphasis and opportunity to express we are not afraid of dead bodies: indeed, in accordance with Scripture, we honour them and look forward to their future resurrection. Sprinkling and incensing the coffin thus form an important part of the rite, which are often deeply appreciated, even by those who have little experience of them, and which have no secular equivalent.
Christian funerals take place in an ongoing pastoral relationship of care for the bereaved, and not just a contractual one focussed on this one particular event. Evidence from undertakers as well as from the Church of England’s own research teaches the interesting lesson that pastoral support is most valued by families at around three to four weeks after the funeral itself. This is the stage at which friends and family have often gone back to normal whilst the bereaved often most definitely have not. Civil celebrants have no remit to offer such ongoing support. The clergy have, but – myself included – often don’t.
Over the past two years – in the face of the Covid pandemic – the Church of England has been astonishingly poor at proclaiming a lively hope in the resurrection, yet funerals are a unique time to do just that. We do so, of course, in the knowledge that many in our society have not only lost this hope but any interest in it. However, I recall the wonderful Canon Sandra Millar, formerly Church of England Head of Life Events, arguing adamantly that hope for the future is our ‘biggest distinctive’. So it must surely be: Christian funerals look forward as much as backward – an angle that secular celebrants can never offer. ‘I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord.’
The Ven Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings and priest-in-charge of St John the Evangelist, Crowborough, in the Diocese of Chichester. He recently chaired a group looking at funeral practice within the diocese.