I’d like to spend a moment discussing death. Yes, I know, it’s not a conversation many people enjoy having despite it’s inevitability for us all, but whether we like it or not death is one of our ‘core businesses’.
A recent spate of funerals in the parish reminded me that the vast majority of people don’t get their experiences of church during a Sunday morning Eucharist. During the final fortnight in May our main church hosted some 300 people at a variety of Sunday and midweek worship events and a further 700+ at funerals.
It’s a fact that most people find themselves in a church for (in order of decreasing popularity) hatching, matching and despatching and that’s about it. So the questions that have been bugging me over the past few days is, what are all those people finding when they come to an Anglican funeral, and what could/should we be doing to manage this process better?
Let’s think about the latter issue first. For some years now I have been quietly encouraging people to do some pre-planning of their funeral service. After all, we pre-pay the funeral director’s fees and pre-purchase plots, so why not put some pre-emptive energy into the service itself. I’m constantly reminded that for so many people church is a pretty alien concept anyway, so to be suddenly thrust into the task of choosing hymns and readings at the worst possible point, when they’re trying to grieve and do a million things at once … well, it’s not easy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we should present our families with an entire funeral liturgy, mapped out to the final comma with no room left to move. Flexibility is important, families need to feel free to pay their tributes in their ways, but ask nine out of 10 people who have had to organise a loved one’s funeral and they will say they would have loved Grandma, Mum, Dad, etc. to have left some ideas for readings and music and so on.
So from that point of view pre-planning some service details is an act of love and caring for those whom you leave behind, but there is, of course, another side to this.
Returning to my first question, there’s something that niggles me about the fact that more often than not the funerals I lead and/or attend feature; the ‘traditional’ Lord’s Prayer (the ‘new’ Lord’s Prayer still being considered such despite the fact that it’s now over thirty years old), hymns that are definitely more ancient than modern, and numerous other features that simply wouldn’t pass muster on a Sunday morning. Why? Because that’s what many people remember from their days at Sunday School or Boarding School and they haven’t really done Church since and it’s very hard to get into an argument in favour of contemporising the liturgy at such a time.
So what we’re left with is the vast majority of people experiencing Church in a situation where what we do bears little resemblance to what we usually do in what we would consider our main liturgical events each week. Hmmm.
Here’s my plan, let’s encourage people to do some funeral planning – and do it ourselves – and while we’re at it, let’s encourage them to make sure that what they plan looks like the church of today.
Ultimately I’m really happy that people are still making connections with the Church, even if it’s only at funerals, what I would hope is that the Church they’re connecting with is the Church as it is, otherwise for many the Church as it was will be the Church as it always shall be!
Brian Dawson is Vicar os St Luke's, Havelock North.