Comfort and Confusion: Reflections on the Post-Christian Funeral

This has been a year for funerals. As I come up to my first anniversary as Incumbent at Church of the Epiphany, I have conducted 14. Ten of these have taken place in the chapel at the funeral home just a couple of blocks down the street; four have been for well-known parish members.  My Archdeacon tells me that this is an unusually heavy year in terms of numbers. I can’t say. But the experience has been formative and important for me in my parish work here.

First, it’s helped me reflect on the place and importance of the funeral. The funeral, in the Anglican tradition anyway, is the way in which we bring this most abnormal and shattering of events—death—into the life of the community of faith. The way in which we normalize it, normalize our grief, and set them both in the context of worship, of faith in the One who from whom we have our beginning and to whom we return at our end. The scriptures, songs, sermon and prayers are meant to comfort—both in the sense of softening and in the classical sense of strengthening—the bereaved and to give them hope for the resurrection and the day when their tears will be forever wiped away.

What a powerful and important place to sit as a minister of the Gospel! It has become—and I hope will always remain—a privilege to sit with families in their grief and to offer what resources are mine to offer as they walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Second, it’s allowed me to see just how odd a Christian funeral really is, or at least should be. In the Anglican liturgy, apart from “brief words” about the deceased at the beginning of the funeral, this is a worship service. It is about the God who remains present with us even in this most dark of times, a time when for many, God will be remote if not utterly absent. So we surround ourselves in the funeral with the signs of his presence—his Word, his Sacraments, the praises of his people which we believe he inhabits. In our culture, the funeral is more often than not about the deceased, their life, their contributions, the grief their loss brings. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things of course, but increasingly, there is no attempt to set those things in the larger context of the community and within the larger question of the community’s covenantal relationship with God.

And that cultural disconnect leads to what for me is the hard part. In the 10 funeral chapel funerals,  I have been asked as an Anglican minister to offer an Anglican funeral for the sake of folks whose connection to any community of faith is tenuous at best. (This is no judgment on them, of course. And it is quite significant—especially for those who revel a little too quickly in the notion of “post-Christendom”—that even the most de- or un-churched of folks turn to the old and battered institution in hope of a little comfort. Their intuition is good. It is an opportunity for grace and for the Spirit to continue, or perhaps even begin, his mysterious work in those lives. ) Even as I honor the instinct, and welcome the opportunity to bring the Gospel to this situation, however, I have begun to wonder just what comfort and hope the Christian funeral can give to these folks.

For if the funeral is to function as I described above—and it does do that!—it assumes a long relationship with the church to whom the rite belongs. It takes for granted a familiarity with Holy Scripture, with the promises taken in our baptisms, with the hope infused in every Holy Communion and through that familiarity, brings the foreignness of death within its bounds. So it is that in every funeral, we embrace the hope that Christ is Lord of both the dead and the living even as, in our grief, we acknowledge that the dead are, well, dead.

But what of my congregations at the funeral home, who have called on me because someone at some point perhaps decades past was connected to my parish? While I dare not dismiss the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the Word read and proclaimed, I can’t help but feel that the words don’t do what the framers of the prayer books hoped they would. I fear sometimes that they have precisely the opposite effect—they take the foreignness that surrounds death and make it even more foreign.

I am certainly going to keep officiating at these sorts of funerals because I really do believe that even if the liturgy no longer functions as it should, the Word is still the vehicle through whom the Spirit breathes, still the fit witness to Him who conquered death. But even as I do, I am going to feel like a stranger, a little less at home every time and wonder a little more if the liturgy can do what they’ve asked of it.


3 thoughts on “Comfort and Confusion: Reflections on the Post-Christian Funeral

  1. A well written piece on a difficult subject. My only comment is the use of the term ‘abnormal’ when referring to detath in the second parragraph. Why is death abnormal? Isn’t it, in fact, a natural progression from birth? The point you made about how the rite is received by the non-church going attendee is well made. Hopefully, the confusion that might result in a persons mind after having been through a well presented funeral rite will get him or her to questioning what they saw or heard. I really enjoy the articles in Texas Flood and look forward to reading them.

  2. I think I’ll stick with “abnormal,” Pat for that is the way most folks I deal with experience it. Even when it comes at the end of a long disease or is the passing of a saint, there is something profoundly wrong in the event that testifies to the both to the fallenness of all creation, and to our experience of creation as fallen. We intuitively know we were meant for more. I am not, btw, commenting on whether physcial death was part of pre-fall creation. I am merely talking about how human beings experience the deaths of those close to them now.

  3. Tim, this is a well-thought-out reflection. I conducted my first funeral in 1988, and have found that there has been a process of change that has taken place over those many years. Way Back Then, virtually everybody called on a cleric to conduct a funeral for a loved one. If the deceased and/or the bereaved had a church home, it was easy to know whom to call. If not, the undertaker had a list of clergy who, in his/her eyes, “did a good funeral.” I have conducted more of the latter than I can count, particularly when I served a downtown congregation. And as I think about it, I’m increasingly convinced that they only called on a minister because they thought it was somehow required. I’ve had families tell me not to make it ‘religious’. (While I have greater liturgical wiggle room than you do, Tim, I have always resisted that notion!) At times, I’ve wondered, even when I’ve put the gospel in the simplest possible terms, if the Good News really was, in fact, news to these dear people. Thus do I concur with your comment that it is a “powerful and important place to sit as a minister of the Gospel”. And for the same reason, I will never turn down the opportunity to share God’s comfortable words.

    More often, nowadays, do I see families who either (a) ask a friend who has experience in public speaking to conduct a funeral [more often a memorial service in a neutral place], or (b) hold no ritual of death at all. The former troubles me, inasmuch as God’s Word may not show up at all in the gathering; the latter disturbs me greatly, because there must be something – something! – that marks the passing of a loved one in order for the grieving process to take place well.

    Fifteen years ago, I was conducting 35-45 funerals a year. Since coming to my current charge, nearly four years ago, I have conducted precisely six. Part of the reason for this is that I serve a smaller, younger, and more robust congregation. But though there are five worshipping congregations in this town, I am the only resident pastor in the community. People know I’m here, but few without significant church connections are turning to the church for final rites of passage. It truly is a post-Christian society.

    Keep up the good work, brother.

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