In an excellent article in the Christian Century, the Rev Samuel Wells, an American, describes taking a British funeral. There are lessons here for clergy, funeral celebrants and undertakers.
And so it was that I was called to preside at the funeral of Michael. Michael had had a difficult life. He had Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
At the funeral tea I lingered and asked Michael’s mother what it was like to say goodbye. “Oh, it wasn’t much fun,” she said. “But d’you know what?” she added. “I slipped a packet of condoms in the coffin just before they closed it.” And she winked.
Was ever a parting gesture so laden with complexities of meaning? The young Tutankhamen, teenage pharaoh of the 14th century BC, was surrounded in his tomb by an array of golden artifacts. Michael was sent to the hereafter with a supply of prophylactics … The condom represented the adulthood Michael had never attained, the manhood he’d never inhabited.
Whatever the packet represented, it was a poignant symbol of care and abandon, restraint and permission, encouragement and playfulness, fertility and wistful regret. Michael’s mother had spent 14 years caring for his every bodily need: her final gift was a gesture toward the single bodily desire that remained out of his reach, the one that she couldn’t satisfy for him. It was a microcosm of what this life had not given him—and maybe the next life would.
Since that day I’ve changed the way I talk with grieving families about their loved ones. I ask if there’s something they want to put in the coffin. I wonder with them if there’s something their beloved had always longed for or something that remained out of reach. Is there a way the funeral can name and address what could never happen or the dream that could never be? I try in each funeral to include something visual, tangible, laden with unspoken meaning—a gesture, an artifact, a procession of gifts, a picture, a focus for prayer. Michael’s mother taught me that God makes heaven out of our faltering, foolish and fragile attempts to imagine and construct it.
If clergy will not shape liturgy to incorporate people’s longings and regrets and desires … then people will simply go ahead and construct their own. Only if they’re very lucky will the clergy hear about those homemade liturgies. With a wink.
Read the whole article here