The funeral service is primarily an opportunity to honour the life of a family member or friend. It affords us a chance to celebrate all that they have contributed into this world and into our lives. Hopefully, we can give testimony to a life lived to the full, declare that they will be welcome in heaven and commend them into God’s merciful love and care.
In addition to all this it also provides people who may not have seen one another for a considerable time, maybe years, to be reunited with each other and catch up on what is happening in each other’s lives, even if that is for just a few short hours that afternoon.
Whilst many families are very close, live locally and spend time with each other often, not all families live near to each other. This can mean that there are some wonderful reunions for me to observe prior to us entering the chapel. The emotion of the day, the circumstances and the location can make these reunions all the more intense, sometimes genuinely touching and others, well edging towards the comedic.
At one service that I officiated at, the deceased was a part of a large and shall we say diverse family. At the time of the service one of his brothers was mid-way through a stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure. He came to the funeral accompanied by three burly prison officers, one of whom was handcuffed to the ‘prisoner’ with a significant 3 foot chain ensuring that, whilst chained, they both had at least some degree of independent movement. As the majority of the mourners started to enter the chapel they all had to pass the rear of the hearse and also pass those who were going to be pallbearers, one of whom was the brother attached to the prison guard. This became a form of impromptu visiting session for the ‘inmate’ as everyone wanted to hug, kiss or greet him as they went into chapel.
Then, once the mourners had all entered the chapel, one of the funeral staff talks through the mechanics of how family mourners can safely and with reverence carry a coffin into chapel. He instructs them how to walk and how to do take their loved one on their final journey with dignity. Whilst these instructions are being given another brother of the deceased, who is also about to carry the coffin, looks across at where his other ‘HMP couriered’ brother is standing and says ‘Hello! You remember me??? Yeah you must remember me, you do don’t you, you remember me?’ Before you think to yourself that would be a strange conversation between two brothers, even if one has been ‘staying away’ for a short while, it was not to his brother that these words were addressed. Instead this brother had recognised his own former prison guard who was now attached to his brother at his other brother’s funeral service. You may need to read that sentence (no pun intended) again to make sure you picture the scene. The prison guard seeking to keep an air of professionalism simply replied that he hoped that he was keeping well.
Then watching as the coffin was brought out of the hearse another almost comical moment presented itself. Whilst transferring the coffin from waist height up onto the pallbearers shoulders was done reasonably smoothly, it meant for the poor HMP prison guard, who remember is handcuffed to a pallbearer with a short 3 foot chain between them, had his arm pulled and jolted as his prisoner went through the various movements, almost hitting himself in his own face.
Whilst many families are very close, not all families get along with each other. Some families are very broken, damaged, hurting and estranged. This can mean that far from wonderful family reunions happening in front of me I can instead be an audience to my own personal viewing of a ‘Jeremy Kyle @ The Crematorium type show’.
One morning, standing to the side of the entrance as the mourners slowly file past me ready to take their seats in the chapel, the principle mourner gently leans in to have a word in my ear. ‘Tell the funeral guys to keep the engine on the limousine running, cos if this kicks off we are straight outta here!’ Thankfully it didn’t but I was very aware of the fact that one half of the family were sat one side of the chapel, with the other half of the family across the aisle from them on the other side. Sadly, the gulf between them that day was far far wider than the physical 5 feet gap that went down the centre of the chapel.
After the service the gentleman shook my hand and thanked me for a wonderful service. He then stood beside me and shook the hands of everyone who left the chapel. Again, sadly, but maybe not unsurprisingly, only 50% of the mourners left the chapel, the other half all remained standing still in their places. It was only when the gentleman moved away from me and down onto the flower terrace that the other half of the family all exited the chapel. Again they stopped to thank me individually for a beautiful service and then marched in a procession around the flower terrace with no conversation with the rest of the family towards their cars and away they went. Tragic to view!
It can be sad to observe how broken and damaged some families have become. Often I might be unaware as to why or at best only party to one side of whatever the family issue is. So my role as pastor is best one to listen and support individuals in a gentle way, rather than position myself as the great mediator for the whole family. A position that a colleague might have been well to have observed herself.
It was told to me that quite recently a fragmented family found themselves inside the chapel having lost a loved one. The family were very estranged from each other. A feud had been left unhealed for many years and now they all found themselves in each other’s presence inside the chapel together. A few short moments in the same room before no doubt all going their separate ways once again. This service was being led by a humanist minister who at the end of the service brought the immediate family up to the catafalque to stand around the coffin as the service concluded. The family reluctantly followed her lead and stood very much either side of the coffin clearly uncomfortable at the situation and the proximity of their feuding family. Clearly, the humanist minister hadn’t grasped the depth of the feelings within the room and suggested that the family, ‘for the sake of mum’ all held hands as a sign that they were willing to put their differences behind them. As the eyes of all the other mourners focused on the family, their friends and extended family looked on to see how this reconciliation might develop. The silence was broken by one of the family turning to the minister and saying ‘why don’t you just f*** off!’ The service finished and the people were certainly no nearer being reconciled with each other.
My observations are that when facing bereavement it can be a time when families are brought closer together, yet sadly it can be a time when families are ever more blown apart. As I seek to pastor those in mourning I am increasingly aware of the need for every individual and family to have, know and experience love, understanding, community and relationships in a deep and tangible way – a love that comes from functioning family, selfless friendships and especially from God who loves us more than we can ever imagine.
Do you remember watching ‘It’ll Be Alright On The Night’? A TV show showing all the times when people said the wrong thing, fluffed their lines or said something that they didn’t mean to that just came out funny. Well the church or funeral service is in no way exempt of the occasional faux pas, double entendre or down right ‘oops moments’. Here are some that I have witnessed or even said myself…
I recall an old school assembly that I delivered many many times over the years where I encouraged the children to realise that the tongue is a very, maybe the most powerful part of our body. Using a banana and once it was peeled getting a student to try to seal it up again, and then squeezing a tube of toothpaste out before trying to see if they could put the toothpaste back into the tube. I used these visual illustrations to point out that words once said cannot be unsaid and therefore, whatever we say ought to be thought through and carefully constructed before they pass our lips….
However well we might know this lesson to be true, still there are countless times when, whether in church or in the crematorium chapel, things get said that were not meant to sound the way they did.
If you are easily offended please stop reading this week’s blog about… NOW!
Many years ago when I was Youth Minister at Bushey Baptist Church we took a number of the teenage young people out one weekend, to serve in the local community expecting nothing in return. We went to tidy up peoples gardens, communal areas, pathways etc in West Watford. Skips were filled, rubbish was disposed of, and people’s lives were blessed. Some of these houses had alley ways that ran down the sides of some properties and along the rear of their gardens. Speaking to a full church the following morning, enthusing them of what the youth had done, I said that the youth had cleaned out many people’s ‘back passages’ and how appreciative the residents had been… I saw some of the congregation sniggering, I knew what I meant and was blissfully oblivious to the faux pas that I was making.
I have similar memories of the time when I was speaking in church retelling the story of when some of Jesus’ disciples were arguing amongst themselves as to who would be the greatest amongst them when in the kingdom of heaven. Explaining that the response that Jesus gave to his disciples was so incisive and clear, what I meant to say was that ‘the disciples jaws dropped’, instead what I actually said was that ‘the disciples drawers dropped’. The image of Jesus’ followers saying I’m greater than you, no, I’m greater than you and to prove it they dropped their drawers creates a wholly different interpretation and dynamic to this Bible account.
Now a faux pas in church on a Sunday, amongst your congregation can bring a funny and comedic moment within a service. Yet when the faux pas comes within a funeral service it can be that much sharper and if noted by the mourners you could expect someone to quietly whisper ‘awkward!’
I recall standing in the vestry at a crematorium as the service ahead of the one I was leading was taking place. Listening to the vicar deliver the eulogy for his church organist. Now maybe the problem here is me and my mind, but had I been paying tribute to the gentleman I hope that I would not have kept on saying how much he enjoyed to and how he was never happier than when playing with his organ. Schoolboy humour lives on well within me even though I am in my mid 40’s.
The longest tribute that I have ever listened to lasted 35 minutes from start to finish, most of those minutes excruciatingly painful. A man was speaking at his ex-wife’s funeral, an interesting dynamic in itself. He said to their emotional daughter sat on the front row that he recalled a beautiful dress that her mother owned and had worn when they had dated and asked if she still had it. The daughter nodded. He asked if he could have it. As she said yes I recall thinking that it is often jewellery that people keep or photographs or something but if he wanted her dress then I guess that if it reminds him of happy memories then that’s fine. Sadly for the congregation the eulogy didn’t stop there. He continued by saying that he wasn’t sure what that dress would look like on him, but he would like to give it a go. It was very soon after this line that I had to step in and ask him to cease his eulogy, still the only time I have ever had to step in and stop someone from speaking.
Thankfully the medical condition ‘Tourette’s’ is not all that common. So the number of times that I have had a principal mourner who struggled with the condition can be counted on just one hand, in fact just one finger to be accurate. Still, this one occasion is an experience that remains with me. The funeral had reached a point of quiet reflection where we all had an opportunity to be still and give thanks silently for the life of our friend and family member. When the silence was broken by the deceased’s partner shouting out ‘Tough Titties’ at the top of his voice the whole congregation almost jumped out of their seats with shock.
Then there was the occasion that I heard of very recently, where a vicar explained to the congregation that the deceased gentleman had been married three times and had outlived all of his wives, only to be somewhat abruptly put in his place by the grieving widow who was sat on the front row immediately in front of him. Big Oops!
So there is no real moral to this weeks blog, just a few stories of things that got said where maybe with a bit of thought, or a better word selection things might have passed off a little better.
Have a great week…. And if you know a funny double entendre I’d very much like you to give me one!
On this particular day the sky was full of grey clouds. Rain fell heavily as the mourners gathered, many of them openly displaying their emotions. As I stood outside the front door to the crematorium chapel a man who I hadn’t previously met edged up to the side of me, leant in and said quietly, ‘I’m only here for my inheritance!’ Somewhat taken aback by his comment and stalling for time I replied saying ‘I beg your pardon…’ He replied with the same words ‘I’m only here for my inheritance.’
3 years on from that encounter, his words remain with me as vividly as the day he spoke them. Why did he feel that he wanted to impart that information to me, was it some kind of act of confession to the ‘Priest’ prior to a religious ceremony???
What I remember feeling and this feeling continues today, is that if he felt that his inheritance was found solely in the death of this gentleman, a member of his family then he had sadly missed out on so very much and had failed to grasp truly what his inheritance was. For our inheritance is not simply within any money that we may benefit from following the death of a person but much more so in the person’s life. The times that we spent together, the experiences we shared, the memories that we treasure, the example that they have shown us, the wisdom that they have invested into our lives; it is these things that contribute to what is our inheritance not simply what they leave once they pass away.
Within the Christian calendar, much is focused on Christmas – (the birth of Jesus) and then Easter – (Jesus’ death and resurrection). For many people though, they fail to appreciate and celebrate the life that he led between these times and understand how much there is to inherit in the life of Jesus Christ.
I often reflect upon what it must have been like to have been one of Jesus’ disciples. To have been one of his circle of closest friends and followed him throughout his earthly ministry and witnessed first-hand all that he did and said during what was somewhere in the region of just 3 years. How incredible it would have been to have seen his miracles happen in front of me, feeding 5000, walking on water, blind people restored with sight, seen demons cast out of people and to have shared in his life and he in mine. I imagine getting back to wherever we would have spent the evening and over a meal laughing about the day… ‘Did you see his face when you said that to him Jesus’… ‘Wasn’t that amazing when that happened’… ‘Did you see the tears in the eyes of the crowd when they witnessed such an act of compassion and love’… ‘Those religious leaders tried to back you into a corner Jesus but what you said was fantastic, you smashed it Jesus – you knocked them right out of the park!’
Jesus invested into the lives of these men, some of whom went on to write their accounts of what they saw, what was said, what they experienced, did and felt. They passed on their experiences to us so that these good news stories are now recorded in the Bible, these are the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Consequently, we get to inherit so much about Jesus and his life – not simply his birth, death and resurrection.
When Lord of the Rings was being released in the cinemas, there was this trailer that included the following words… ‘History became legend, legend became myth, much was lost, no one lived who could remember’…
How thankful I am that people who witnessed and lived those days with Jesus wrote their experiences down for us to share in that rich inheritance. Otherwise, might these historical experiences have diluted over the centuries to the point where they ended up being forgotten. Thankfully not – we would all do well to read them and read them often.
So, back to the chapel on that grey and wet morning. We honoured that gentleman for a life well lived, his service to our nation during the wartime years, the way he had selflessly cared for his spouse during her final season of life and mentioned much more beside. As for the man who had spoken to me prior to the service, I drove away from the service feeling sad for him. He had been in the company and presence of a wonderful man and yet he had failed to understand just how amazing and life changing he was, if only he had properly got to know him a much greater inheritance had been available to him.
So what about us? May I suggest three things for each of us to consider…
- Be Thankful – for the people within our families and friendship groups, for the input and investment they have placed into our lives. Get to know them and listen to the stories of their life.
- Be Intentional – that as we have been blessed, might we be a blessing to others with whom we share our lives. Choose to bless people each day.
- Give presents at Christmas and eat chocolate at Easter, but above that, get to know and understand who Jesus is – his life, his teachings, his example and how enjoy the inheritance that he offers to us..
Jesus said – ‘I have come that you may have life and live it to the full’ – John 10 v10…. I like the sound of that!