I remember when I was on the ordination training course asking former students who were into their first year of curacy how they felt about funeral ministry. It’s a common question amongst ordinands in training – how will we respond to the inevitable and regular taking of funerals? The answer given by all the new curates and experienced clergy that I’ve ever asked has been that funeral ministry is very special, very much a privilege and a blessing, and a unique opportunity to minister to people at one of life’s most deeply challenging times. And now that I have begun taking funerals myself, I have to agree.
Every funeral is different, because every person is unique. It’s fairly peculiar to the Church of England (as the national ‘established’ church) that we often take funerals for people who have had only a very weak link with the church. Anyone within our parish boundaries can have a funeral service led by a Church of England minister, whether they ever attended church or not; whether they were baptised or not.
Some funerals are more difficult than others, of course. In my experience that can often depend upon whether the family are a cohesive unit or not, but obviously a funeral for anyone who isn’t elderly carries an added sense of tragedy. Recently I conducted a funeral for someone who was under the age of 40, who died in tragic circumstances, and whose family situation was quite fragmented. That was the hardest so far, which affected me for several days after, though I never knew the deceased person or his family before the funeral.
To me, a ‘good’ funeral is one where I can really sense a good support system within the family itself, which I know will help carry them through the weeks, months and years ahead. The minister has got a pastoral obligation to follow up with visiting the bereaved, but family and friends are going to be the more frequent providers of care and attention. I have to say at this point, though, that the church can be a real lifeline to people who have lost loved ones. I think also that it is so good for a church to offer some form of bereavement support group, something which I know has been very helpful for members of my own family after my brother-in-law and stepfather passed away last year. Hopefully we will be able to set up something like that soon at the church I’m in now. It certainly seems needed.
Death is such an enigma. On the one hand, we know it is unavoidable, part of life, and will come to us all. On the other hand, we are so shocked by it. St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:55 that because of the resurrection of Jesus after his death, death’s sting and victory are no more. This gives us assurance and hope for the afterlife, where there will be no more tears or sorrow. For now, death still jars us and shocks us. We weep for love lost. We are still bound to suffering in this world. It doesn’t feel right, and it isn’t right. But I believe that is why Jesus came, why he suffered, died, was buried, resurrected and ascended into heaven. I believe wholeheartedly in the everlasting life offered in Christ Jesus. And that is the only possible comfort I can bring to others who mourn.