Masses banned at the crem

Posted by Richard Rawlinson
Priests have been instructed to stop saying Mass for the dead at crematoriums. They’ve been sent a letter by their bishops saying the order is not rejecting crematoriums but aims to bring people back into churches.

Priests will be able to say a short prayer at a crematorium, similar to a prayer at a graveside, but the letter states that moving funerals away from churches risked emptying the ritual of its context and meaning.

It is in effect reforming the reform that authorised prayers at crematoriums but was then interpreted as allowing Mass, even though the premises might lack Christian symbols and be cut off from the deceased person’s parish community.

Ok, this initiative is by Belgian Flemish bishops only for now —here — but it’s part of wider efforts to uphold sanctity. An Irish bishop has recently clarified guidelines that eulogies should not be delivered during the funeral liturgy, but should take place outside the church – here.

One concern about a return to ‘two-centre’ ritual (church and crem or church and graveside) is likely to be the additional costs for those without much money.

More about the problem posed by crem committals for church-goers here.


A C of E funeral

To Salisbury and the funeral of the mother of two friends.

The venue is the cathedral, no less. We get there in good time, but not good enough: the place is almost full and we forage for a seat at the back.

Who’s the celeb who died, you ask. No one you’ve heard of. Andrea was the wife of a Wiltshire vicar who touched the hearts of everyone she met. Her achievement was that she was a first-rate human being. All these people testify to that, having got themselves here at, doubtless, some inconvenience.

The service is billed as one of gratitude and thanksgiving. It’s the full and formal Anglican rite. As we wait for it to begin we contemplate the poem by RS Thomas in the service booklet, The Other. It begins:

There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl

And concludes:

And the
thought comes
of that other being who is
awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.

There’s a procession comprising all manner of appropriately attired officiants, and the Bishop of Ramsbury bringing up the rear. It’s a proper procession. The nave of the cathedral is 134 metres long and the land-speed record for getting from start to finish is nowhere near lowered on this occasion.

The ritual wraps itself lovingly around Andrea. There’s a bidding prayer which commemorates Andrea’s “love of being a parish priest’s wife who welcomed all who came to the vicarage door” at the same time as proclaiming the faith that “all who believe in [Christ] will rise with him”. I guess there’s a good sprinkling of unbelievers and agnostics present, but it’s by no means alienating. The tone is humane and gentle.

There are good hymns – ‘Angel-voices ever singing’; ‘Brother, sister, let me serve you’; and ‘Tell out my soul’. There are prayers and communion.

A family friend delivers a tribute which deftly balances biography, naming of attributes and affectionate anecdotes. A woman from the Mother’s Union pays tribute to Andrea’s dedication to that organisation. The bishop speaks with admirable concision. His text is George Herbert’s Bitter-Sweet:

Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

There is singing from the choir – Gelineau’s setting of Psalm 23 and Byrd’s Agnus Dei from the Mass for Four Voices – which conjures all the usual adjectives: timeless, ethereal, etc. In a building like this, with the gloaming settling, all the usual adjectives fall short by a distance.

An hour and forty minutes later, it is over: “Andrea, go forth upon your journey … May your portion this day be in peace.”

And the procession makes its way back down the nave which Andrea walked up, years ago, as a young bride.

Who is mimicking who?

 Posted by Richard Rawlinson 

Two seasonal events coming up: the Nine Lessons and Carols is a traditional Christmas Eve ceremony, the most famous and widely broadcast being the service from King’s College, Cambridge; and Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, is showing for 10 nights in December at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre. A rationalist celebration of Yuletide, this year’s line-up promises music by Jonny & The Baptists (pictured) and stand-up comedy by Alexei Sayle.

Of course, members of the British Humanist Association, a non-prophet organisation, might enjoy the former, just as Christians might enjoy the latter. You don’t need to believe in angels to sing along to Robbie Williams’s Angels. And a bit of incredulous mockery doesn’t do the faithful any harm.

Though from an era of more restrained comedy, I’ve LOL’d at Dave Allen’s religious gags. Attending a funeral as a child, he recalls thinking the priest was saying: ‘In the name of the father and of the Son and into the hole he goes’. 

There are a few gentle jokes about non-believers, too. What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with an atheist? Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason.

The there’s the one about a priest and rational sceptic both up for the guillotine. Asked for his final words, the priest says: ‘I believe in God who will rescue me in my hour of need’. The executioner then pulls the cord, but the blade of the ominous contraption of death suddenly stops just short of his neck. ‘A miracle,’ gasps the crowd, and the executioner lets him go free.

Next, the rationalist is asked for his final words. He doesn’t hear the question as he’s staring intently at the guillotine. The executioner asks again to which the rationalist finally replies: ’Oh, I see your problem. You’ve got a blockage in the gear assembly, right there.’

Now to the more serious question of who is copying who at funerals, the subject for which the Nine Lessons and Carols events were a mere prelude:

Are secular funerals still too closely following the ceremonial rituals and traditions of religion? Or is the trend among religious funerals towards emphasis on eulogy and celebration of life in fact aping secularism? Are they merging into one and, if so, should they define themselves more clearly?

Funerals must address dreams, too

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

Driven to distraction?

Posted by Vale

I am a celebrant of the tribe of IOCF (lapsed). We have a short creed that describes a Civil Funeral, it goes:

A Civil Funeral is driven by the wishes, beliefs and values of the deceased and their family, not by the beliefs or ideology of the person conducting the funeral. It sits between a religious service and a humanist funeral.

We swing both ways, you might say. The question is, how far should we swing?

I have been asked to lead services recently that are effectively religious services: two hymns, the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer (suitably non-denominational and non-specific ) at committal too.

The rationale for the family seems to be that they have no living connection with a church, but they want the trappings and reassurance of something very traditional. They also, I think, want to feel in control of the process. I am a reassuring presence, because they are commissioning me.

The services themselves are lovely – warm and full of comfort…but something niggles at me. When does responding to a family’s wishes become a masquerade? When should you call for the priest?

It’s your funeral

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

In recent decades the emphasis of funerals has gone from forward-looking to backward-looking. The traditional funeral marked the transition from this life to the future life beyond death. Details of the life of the dead person were less significant than the existence of the immortal soul. This eschatological approach has given way to thanksgiving services celebrating a past life, the quality of which are judged less on their hope of heavenly peace, and more on whether they capture the essence of the life that’s ended. 

This is clearly a reflection of declining faith but it’s not merely a result of funerals being offered by secular celebrants. The vast majority of the 500,000-plus funerals in the UK each year continue to be conducted by Christian priests or the clergy of other faiths. While Christian funeral liturgy, with its eschatological emphasis, has changed little in centuries, the clergy are nevertheless responding to grass-roots demand for more eulogy, just as secular celebrants have emerged to meet this same demand for a retrospective approach at funerals. 

So, committal aside, are both religious and secular funerals becoming what used to be the post-funeral memorial service, traditionally given to those deemed to have led remarkable lives? To rephrase Andy Warhol, even in death everyone is famous for 15 minutes. 

It isn’t that simple, of course. Christian funerals don’t totally replace the future trajectory of the religious service, but simply add increasing time to the backward-looking aspects. Similarly, secular celebrations of life might include prayers, Bible readings and hymns that commend the soul to ever-lasting peace.  

By popular demand, a middle way is winning the day. ‘I’m Christian-lite but I want my send-off to be largely about me’. ‘I’m atheist-lite but want some reference to an afterlife, just in case’. ‘I’m bereaved and want his/her send-off to move through a mix of fond recollections and hope that his/her essence continues, not just in memory but in some spiritual form’. 

Will people in time increasingly let go of the hope of life beyond death? If more people today were persuaded to think deeply about their funeral requirements, would this be happening more quickly? Imagine, for example, a consumer survey which asked a cross section of people:

How much emphasis in your funeral do you want to be on a celebration of your past life, and how much on a future life beyond death?

Multiple choice answers could then range from 100% and 0% either way to a 50/50 split. (Note: it’s possible to have 0% after-life in a secular funeral but impossible to have 0% ‘you’ in a religious funeral). 

Such an invitation to focus the mind might bring more clarity of purpose to funerals. Some might conclude: ‘As I never really think about spiritual matters, my plans for a quasi-religious service are lazy. I’ll instead nail my colours to the mast of the British Humanist Association with a totally godless ceremony.’ 

Others might go the other way. ‘I’ll now opt for Cranmer’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer, with its words filled with the promise of heaven. I’ll save talk of my career accomplishments, contribution to the community, family life, hobbies and interests for a memorial service later, or for a speech at a post-funeral gathering – rather like the best man’s speech during the wedding party that follows the ceremony itself’. 

Then again, greater thought about funerals might not change the status quo one iota. An 80/20 mix of past and future might be any survey’s majority outcome.  

A barrier to the acceleration of secular funerals is the liberal flexibility of the Church of England. Outside other Christian denominations and other faiths, it continues to have a virtual monopoly regardless of whether you’re devout, lapsed or never-really-think-about-it. This is because its instinct is to be malleable. Some funeral directors lead inbetweeners, as well as strident non-believers, to secular funeral celebrants, but more still steer them to the C of E clergy regardless. 

In some ways, you have to pity the C of E’s predicament. Conspiracy theorists might claim the established church of the nation is determined not to relinquish its ‘ownership’ of the death arena, that it’s fighting to keep power. But Marx’s ‘religion is the opium of the people’ claim increasingly lacks substance as a slur on Christianity, and is, in fact, far more applicable to atheistic Communism, which tried, and failed, to control people’s lives and deny them free will. 

While some clergy surely want to keep their foot in the door of as many households as possible in the hope of evangelising to ‘lost’ souls, others would content themselves with a smaller ministry to the existing faithful if a broader church meant diluting faith by being all things to all people. Some overworked priests are quietly exasperated when asked to take the funeral of someone who ‘was not religious’. What to include and what to leave out? I’ve heard references to a ‘crem duty funeral’ (when there’s been no opportunity to meet the family beforehand), and the funeral director has said, on the day, that the family don’t want any mention of resurrection or life beyond death. 

Religious or secular, it’s important to think about your funeral service and celebrant, not automatically heed the advice of your appointed funeral director. Some FDs listen and offer good advice, whether you want a priest, secular celebrant, Interfaith minister or New Age guru. Others, to rephrase Henry Ford, say ‘you can have any colour as long as it’s the C of E’.

Putting the Church back into funerals

In an article in Saturday’s Times Nick Jowett, Vicar and Minister of St Andrew’s Psalter Lane Anglican-Methodist Church, Sheffield, proposes ways in which the Church might recover some of its lost share of the funeral market, in particular what he terms the ‘nominal Christian’ sector. 

He concedes that the Church bears some responsibility for the way things are: “Some vicars today seem to regard funerals as unavoidable drudgery and one hears too many stories of funerals taken in an impersonal, routine manner.”

Increasingly taking the place of stipendiary clergy are “easily available freelance funeral celebrants or retired ministers boosting their income, who can offer customised services ranging from liturgical solemnity to chatty humanistic “celebrations” and every shade in between.” 

Mr Jowett exhibits especial animus towards funeral directors: “These days, when you go to the funeral director about your dear departed’s exequies, it seems that almost the last thing you will be offered is the local vicar to take your service. There is a growing feeling that if the deceased were only a nominal Christian, a ceremony with the local minister would not be appropriate. It’s also because the overworked parish priest is often not available at the time desired by the family, if the undertaker can even get him or her on the phone soon enough.”

That’s not all that’s wrong with funeral directors. He thinks that there’s so much wrong with them that “there needs to be a movement to take back death from the funeral directors. Yes, they make things easy for families, but they are too powerful, managing every stage from hospital mortuary to casket of ashes; their charges are too little questioned; and the full range of options for a bereaved family are often not made clear.”

In order to fix this state of affairs, Jowett believes, that “every local authority should provide an independent one-stop funeral advisory service. This would be genuinely independent, offering the latest assessments of local undertakers and telling people the advantages — and pitfalls — of humanist funerals, woodland burials, church versus crematorium services, and all the rest.” 

That word ‘independent’ gets bandied about a lot. Here at the GFG we describe ourselves as independent because we have no financial interests in the funeral industry. I can see now just how a hollow and meaningless a term it is, and we should renounce it. We view the industry through the lens of our values — as, inevitably, would any local authority advisor. There’ll be no disinterested advice available to anyone so long as human beings are the dispensers. Sorry, Mr Jowett, your idea is cuckoo. 

As for funeral directors, it is true to say that many profess a startling contempt for C of E clergy based not on their own faith position but on their experience of how badly ministers can let bereaved people down. Their contempt is not indiscriminate. They reserve especial admiration for those who do a good job. 

In addition to local authority advisors, Mr Jowett believes that the C of E’s offer to the bereaved can be improved in two ways.

First, “the training of clergy should encourage them to prioritise funerals and help them to understand how much a sensitively conducted preparation and ceremony can help even a not particularly religious family at a time of loss.”

Second, “the Church’s website needs to do much more to emphasise the ways in which, within the shape of the funeral liturgy, the service can be made personal with tributes, poetry, music and symbolic actions.”

Mr Jowett rejects the idea of providing “an illustrative breakdown of church fees … showing that they are an almost infinitesimally small part of the whole cost of a funeral.” I’d have thought, given that the combined work of funeral director and minister/celebrant crystallises in the funeral ceremony, there’s some mileage in highlighting the bargain-basement price of a good ceremony-maker. Dammit, ceremony-makers normally come in way under the cost of the flowers left abandoned when it’s all over. 

Full article here (£)

Lay ministers for Catholic funerals

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Due to a shortage of priestly vocations in the Archdiocese of Liverpool, Archbishop Patrick Kelly has come up with a solution that’s likely to get a mixed response: lay people presiding over Catholic funerals when priests are not available.
He’s commissioned 22 lay ministers to celebrate funeral ceremonies, starting this autumn, in an effort to relieve pressure on priests who, in some parishes, are celebrating over 120 funerals a year.
While only ordained priests celebrate the sacraments of Baptism, Confession, Matrimony and the Eucharist, they are already assisted at Mass by lay Eucharistic ministers as well as altar servers, lesson readers, collection gatherers and so forth. Eucharistic minister, as pictured, help distribute the Host to congregations, particularly when numbers receiving are high. They also take the Host to the homes of sick people unable to get to church. Priests are also aided in pastoral care by relgious sisters and lay catechists, who instruct those preparing for Confirmation.
The lay funeral ministers, drawn from Eucharistic ministers, catechists and religious sisters, are now also to receive training in leading vigil prayers, funeral services and committals ‘with an appropriate liturgy of the word, readings and prayers.’
Priests already lead funeral services other than the Requiem Mass, omitting the Eucharist in acknowledgement of the fact that many guests are not Catholic. When the bereaved choose such a ceremony, the liturgy nonetheless offers the same message of Easter hope, and commends the deceased to God. Grace can be bestowed through prayer, not just through the sacraments.
However, the Liverpool initiative will not always succeed in its purpose of solving the demands on overstretched clergy. Just as there are Catholics who queue to receive the Host from a priest at Mass rather than a lay Eucharistic minister, there will be bereaved people who insist on a priest leading their funeral service (Mass or not), and will be prepared to wait for as long as is necessary to book a slot in a priest’s diary. There might also be an upsurge in demand for memorial masses at a later date.
Ever since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which was a pastoral council as opposed to a dogmatic council, a greater role of the laity in the Church has been encouraged. It can take decades before the fruits of councils are realised, and their guidance can be misinterpreted and misimplemented. There are traditionalists who resist all modernisation and liberals who want to dance around the sanctuary with guitars and tamborines. There are also faithful folk holding the middle ground. I see this as a pragmatic initiative which will be accepted by some, and many lay ministers will undoubtedly do a great job.
However, many will prefer a Requiem Mass celebrated by their priest.

Fictional funeral

From Benjamin Black’s latest novel of suspense, Vengeance. The scene is a funeral:

“The vicar droned, his eyes fixed dreamily on a corner of the sky above the trees, a hymn was raggedly sung, someone let fall a sob that sounded like a fox’s bark.”

The Grim Biker’s on the telly

When I was asked if I would permit a crew to film a real biker’s funeral, complete with real mourners I was very cautious and indeed dubious to say the least. Funerals are not there to serve as PR opportunities so I was not keen at all, but while I was with the BBC a family happened to visit our workshop and I saw first hand how sensitive and professional the crew were…

Read all of Paul Sinclair’s account of his experience of being filmed by BBC Religion here. The programme’s out on Weds 12 September at 9pm on BBC2. The title is ‘Dead Good Job.’