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What Makes a Funeral

I’ve been thinking a lot about funerals in the last little while.  The parish I serve has held a number of them in short succession. A great many people have loved, and hence bustled and worked to make the funerals happen.  I’ve met with families, and together we’ve planned the services; bulletins have been put together and photocopied; the fellowship chair has met with the families to plan receptions; myriads of people have shopped, and worked hard in the kitchen preparing food (although I still don’t understand why we have to cut off the crusts of the sandwiches) and others have worked in the Great Hall setting up and then cleaning up for the receptions; the chair of the churchyard has double-checked records and arranged for the gravedigger and his crew; the altar guild has changed frontals and set up flowers and done all the work that goes into getting the church ready; other have recorded services or served as crucifer. Bells have been tolled. That short list is just a smattering of the work that goes into preparing.  It ignores all of the details of funeral homes, of writing eulogies, of going through albums to put together displays of photographs…  and that list omits all the brutal, hard, physically and emotionally taxing and draining work of grief itself.

It’s often said that in arranging for funerals we do all the work that goes into planning a wedding—in three or so days, instead of spread out over several months.  There are so many details, in fact, that we sometimes lose sight of what it’s all for—getting distracted by what hymns or readings we want at our funerals, or the like—and not focusing on the meaning of the service itself. To recall that meaning, I turn to our American cousins.  In the note on their burial service in TEC’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer, we read:

An Easter floral display with a banner reading "Resurrection" and incorporating a cave with the stone rolled away

Easter Flower Display, (c) 2007 by Sally Lavis (whitesusie on flickr), used under Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised.

The liturgy, therefore, is characterized by joy, in the certainty that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn. (507)

These few sentences capture so much of what we are about:

  1. we celebrate the life of the one we love
  2. we mourn the death of the one we love
  3. we proclaim our hope

None of these tasks starts or finishes with the service; rather, the funeral gives us an opportunity to mark them in a formal way. I think that’s why the funeral service so often starts with the solemnity of the sentences (those familiar promises of God’s presence and care) being read—as you can see on page 589 of the Book of Alternative Services or pages 591-92 of our Book of Common Prayer—as they speak about that hope that we have and that we hold on to, the conviction that death is not the end of the story of our journey with God because not even death separate us from God’s love. In their stately, formal way, they are the ideal beginning of what we do when we gather for funerals because they remind us of both our hope and the deep joy God gives to us in Jesus.

I’ve been at and part of funerals that have, in the midst of very real sorrow, made that hope and joy palpable—in singing, in brilliantly told stories and preached sermons, in music.  While it’s clearly grace when it works, it’s also the dint of effort and a special alchemy of gifts coming together. And so I’m curious.  What stories do you have to share about truly special funerals, when you felt that joy of the good news of Christ’s resurrection in the midst of the sorrow of those gathered? Was there some special moment that made you feel it? What helped that joy and hope to come alive for you?

Matthew Griffin

About Matthew Griffin

I’m a priest serving in the Diocese of Niagara, with both a pastoral and an academic interest in the relationship between liturgy and theology. I enjoy reading, cooking, and spending time with my beloved and our young son.

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0 Responses to What Makes a Funeral

  1. Dawn Leger

    My experience is you have to work really hard to screw up a funeral.

    Those who are grieving, usually, have very simple needs, to be given space to grieve, a listening ear, a comforting arm and a strong presence to look to when they are feeling weak.

    The few awful funerals I have attended, the issue was with the cleric. In one instance, he referred to the family of the daughter of the deceased, who was a regular member of his church, and neglected her other siblings because they weren’t church goers. In another, he used the sermon to preach his own agenda.

    If we keep the focus on the grieving family, the funeral will serve its purpose.


  2. The most powerful funeral I celebrated was one that simply did not go as planned. The family had asked for a simple graveside service. We gathered in the cemetery, and began the liturgy. We prayed, and we read.

    As the service progressed, the funeral director tugged at my arm and whispered into my ear. The cemetery staff had drilled a small, round hole in the group, but we had arrived with a large, square urn. Looking back, I realize that the situation was rather comical, and I’m quite sure the family has developed an elaborate explanation about their loved one who always was a square peg in a round hole. But at the time, it seemed disastrous!

    Things seemed to go from bad to worse as two cemetery staff in soiled coveralls arrived on a four-wheeler with a number of shovels. In an attempt to buy time, I started singing: “Amaaaaazing grace, how sweeeet the sooound…” And something clicked. Family members picked up the shovels and started to dig, tears streaming down their faces as they sang. They passed the shovels one to the next, as each member laid some soil on top of the grave.

    Together, they buried their loved one. It’s a funeral I’ll never forget–and one that helped me understand the power of the physical experience. Was it clean? No. Was it removed and withdrawn? No. It was death, and it was absolutely clear what we were there to do.

    Was it reverent? Absolutely. Was it healing? No question. Was it a transformative experience? I haven’t looked at burial the same way since.

  3. Kyle Norman

    My father caught fire during one funeral.  Does that count?

  4. Kyle Norman

    I was just speaking with a friend who is a Curate in England, and we both agreed that we “like” Funearls more than weddings, for we are given the permission to be as faithful and religious as we can be.  The families want prayers. They want blessings. They want to hear of God’s goodnesss.  They want the preist to walk beside them in that time.

    I have had many wonderufl experiences with funerals – usually the ones where I am called from a Funeral home. 

    The ‘oddest’ funeral I have performed was at a wedding chapel.  The family wanted it at the place meaninful to them, and there were many events held at the Wedding Chapel on Highway 1, so that’s where we had it.  They had while lace all around.  No pulpit, just a table (for the signing of the register).  The funeral went well and everyone has happy.

    Although I did notice that the ‘instrumental music’ that was being played prior to the service was the soundtrack to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  Lukily the family didn’t catch on!

  5. As  a  server  I have had the privilege  of being there  for families at  funerals  or  memorial    services. I always  try and assist  clergy &  families  with dignity .  I try  not  to take  anything  for granted,  translation  check with clergy as how they want things  done .

    And  yes I find it hard when its  a person who I know  from the parish. Yet  you know they are  better off and  happy  again.

  6. As  a  server  I have had the privilege  of being there  for families at  funerals  or  memorial    services. I always  try and assist  clergy &  families  with dignity .  I try  not  to take  anything  for granted,  translation  check with clergy as how they want things  done .

    And  yes I find it hard when its  a person who I know  from the parish. Yet  you know they are  better off and  happy  again.

  7. Lee

    I have always found a requiem to be to most beautiful, with the Dies irae, I Thess. 4, 13-18 and John II, 21-27, such wonderful words for example the collect  “O GOD, whose nature and property is ever to have mercy and to forgive, receive our humble petitions for the soul of thy handmaid N. which thou hast this day commanded to depart from this world: deliver it not in to the hands of the enemy, neither forget it at the last, but command it to be received by thy holy angels, and brought unto the country of paradise; that forasmuch as she may not undergo the pains of hell, but may be made partaker of everything felicity. Through…”.

    The traditional vestments in black make a funeral so much more respectful, seeing the priest in biretta, maniple, stole (crossed with the girdle in a roman knot), amice, cassock, surplice, cope – switched with the chasuble. (How many acolytes or sacristans out there can lay them out to spell “IHS”) as well as black veil, burse and black frontals.

    Music, Cabena’s “Mass in the Dorian Mode” Ave Maria (Schubert) in Latin during the communion, Hush! blessèd are the dead (Quam Dilecta), The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want. (Crimmond)

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