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How to give a better send-off

by
13 February 2015

Philip Welsh looks at an introduction and refresher for the officiants at funerals

Peace at the Last: Leading funerals well
Robert Atwell
Canterbury Press £16.99
(978-1-84825-666-8)
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT388 )

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 celebrants.

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 London.

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