Dispatched (Funerals part 2)

I finished last time by saying something like:

Should a service just be about a person, even a Christian person? How much does the service matter in terms of the grieving process? Can I really have what I want at my funeral, and what is that?

Three people commented (Thank you! Comments always appreciated!)  – one pointing out the need for a formal acknowledgment of the person and the death, even where there is not much (or any?) body left; one saying that the words used about the person should be authentic; and one suggesting that preparing one’s own funeral or obituary can be a useful way to assess life goals.

All very good points.

If there’s no body, as when the daughter of friends was tragically lost in a kayaking accident 18 months ago, then the funeral will be only one event, not two. There is still likely to be some form of commending to God, but the service is likely to concentrate on celebrating the life – and dealing with the grief.

But most funerals, as I indicated last time, are divided in two. And my personal feeling is that the main focus of the more public funeral for a Christian should be about God, should be theological. Of course good (honest) things should be said about the dead person, but if we’re saying goodbye to someone then we do it in context of our, or their, beliefs. Therefore the service should say what these are, and not just let them be deduced from “she was an active member of her church, and we’re going to sing her favourite rousing hymn”.

It follows that I would like my service to include the coffin, and the cremation/burial to be afterwards, and to be brief. (I haven’t yet decided which.)

Another thing to say about funerals is that their importance can be exaggerated.

Of course, when there’s been a particularly tragic death, or a public figure has died unexpectedly, the funeral can be the helpful focus for a lot of emotion and even debate, and can be cathartic for a distressed community.

But most funerals aren’t like this.

In the days long ago when I was an elder in the Church of Scotland, I attended the funeral of the husband of a lady in my district. I did not know this man, who didn’t attend church; nor did the trainee minister who conducted the service, although he had prepared conscientiously. There were very few people there. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t loved.

There were more people present at my mother’s (secular) funeral in 2015, but not huge numbers.

I’ve been to large funerals, but the size of the funeral is not an indication of the worth of the person or of how much they’ve been valued and loved. This I suppose is fairly obvious, but there may be a temptation to think that a good person with a small funeral has been let down.

Funerals are likely to be packed out if the circumstances of the death are particularly tragic; if the person is youngish and therefore had fit, active, local friends; if they were sociable; if they’d lived in the locality for a long time; if the bereaved are themselves popular; and even if the church/crematorium is easy to get to. Most of these things weren’t true of my mother, who had outlived many friends and even family, and had moved to Edinburgh from St Andrews fairly shortly before her death.

This is not to say that funerals aren’t important, but they are only a small part of the grieving and farewell process.

It ought to follow that it doesn’t matter hugely if something goes wrong and (say) the favourite hymn is played to an obscure tune that nobody knows.

(Except that when people are grieving, these things do matter.)

By the way, the most recent funerals I’ve attended have included little cards for the mourners, supplied by the undertakers, on which one can write a message or thought. This is a nice idea, but does it mean that actually writing to (or emailing) the bereaved is now officially a dead art?

The idea of planning one’s own funeral is attractive. Susan Howatch’s novel “The Wonder-worker” contains a splendidly cantankerous set of instructions: “under no circumstances whatsoever must anyone give some nauseating speech about how wonderful I was. The clergyman must refer to me throughout as Miss Harrison, not as Beatrice, nor – God forbid – Bea.”

I do however have one extra problem in the planning. Unlike Miss Harrison, I would want singing at my funeral, but given my old-fashioned taste in church music, it’s not clear that anyone would know the hymns I’d want, and be able to sing them with oomph. St Patrick’s Breastplate (“I bind unto myself today”) is hardly ever sung these days, has a distinctive and thus difficult tune, and needs to be sung well and loudly. The Scottish hymn-writer Horatius Bonar’s hymn “Blessing and honour and glory and power” is not known even by hymn-singers in England, where he’s only remembered for “I heard the voice of Jesus say”. And I very much want the Gloria – but again would anyone know the tune?

Maybe I need to start training my children now?

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Judith Leader

    22nd July 2017 at 9:48 pm Reply

    I believe the funeral is for the bereaved, it says in the Bible weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn, something we are not very good at. I did think of arranging my own funeral, but that felt controlling and so I thought I’d leave it to my children as long as it was warts and all but then I won’t be there to hear it. I think it is very hard when there aren’t many people left who knows the person as sometimes happens and I sometimes struggle with the question of how we value people. As a Christian I suppose I should say that God values people, but this enough, I don’t know. What I do know is what Penny says that someone taking the funeral and saying things about person they have never met doesn’t work. I would like someone to read the poem that starts “Come not when I am dead and cast thy foolish tears upon my grave” but only because I like the poem and I think it will be a bit unreasonable to ask someone to do that, so personally I will leave it up to them. I don’t say I am right doing this is, I don’t like dictating what they should do, (they being my children), it is just my considered opinion .

    • Penelope Wallace

      24th July 2017 at 3:43 pm Reply

      You can leave your funeral to your children if you like. It is actually a bonding experience planning a parent’s funeral, and can be quite lovely.

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