Peace at the Last: Leading funerals well
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code
THIS concise practical guide to the leading of funerals is to be
welcomed. Based on Anglican practice, it does not seek to break new
ground, but to commend good practice, and to improve the quality of
funerals - all the more neces-sary amid "the changing landscape of
death", which includes the increasing expectation of bespoke
funerals, and a drift away from parish clergy towards alternative
The Bishop of Exeter, Robert Atwell, builds on a local
university survey and diocesan consultations, and is particularly
strong on the perspective of funeral directors: that, by and large,
Anglican ministers do a really good job; that the Church of England
is at its best when handling tragedy; and that some clergy are
distinctly unprofessional. He strongly commends investing time in
building good relationships with local funeral directors.
The author offers some historical background, not much theology,
a good deal of pastoral wisdom, and lots of sound practical advice
- including a warning not to wear your best shoes for burials. His
approach is generous and realistic, and rings true to experience.
He ranges widely, from what takes place when someone dies, through
dealing with funeral directors, meeting the family, issues about
children, setting up and conducting the funeral, music, preaching,
eulogies, the particulars of burial and cremation, and the ongoing
care of the bereaved. He finally commends the neglected duty of
encouraging people to prepare for their death.
Inevitably, huge topics are dealt with briefly, and sometimes
sketchily. I might have added something on how to respond when
asked to conduct a non-religious funeral; a warning that hymns
downloaded from the internet quite often appear in strange
versions; and encouragement to hospital chaplains, who frequently
take funerals after neonatal deaths, to liaise where possible with
parish clergy about continuing support for the family.
Atwell recognises the issues that can arise from the relative
locations of church, crematorium, and family gathering, and
mentions the practice in some rural areas where the funeral
director alone conducts the committal at the distant crematorium.
The problem can be just as acute in cities. What would the author
think of having the prayer for the committal at church, so that the
departure of the coffin - the congregation remaining in church -
becomes the equivalent of crematorium curtains?
On one point I take issue, notwithstanding Atwell's chairmanship
of the Liturgical Commission. He insists (as Common
Worship recommends) that any personal tribute must precede the
minister's address, particularly so that the sermon can be adjusted
to take account of what may be revealed in the eulogy. This sounds
like a counsel of perfection.
I would contend for the reverse: a clear liturgical sequence of
collect, psalm, scripture, and sermon, and only then a change of
key for more personal tributes, poems, etc., before being drawn
back by the prayers in preparation for the solemn commendation.
Once the congregation have engaged with a good personal tribute -
even if it isn't longer than expected - they are less likely to
take interest in the more general words of a minister whom most of
them will not know.
Those at the outset of ministry will find Peace at the
Last a valuable amplification of the kind of guidance that
initial training and a good training incumbent might give. Old
hands will benefit from its reminders and reprimands, and enjoy
finding this or that to differ about. But why is so useful a short
paperback offered to the public at such a discouraging price?
The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of