LAST week, I conducted my first funeral under the latest COVID-19 regulations. The service took place at a local crematorium, on the understanding that I had 15 minutes for a committal and that there would be no mourners.
The deceased had not died of Covid-19, and I had agreed to take the funeral several weeks ago. Between then and now, everything had changed. In my early discussions with the next of kin, who lived away, they were looking forward to attending the service, but thought that mourners would be thin on the ground because of health concerns. Several directives later, it became clear that I would be the only one there.
I and the undertakers had suggested the possibility of live-streaming the service, but the next of kin had declined the offer. Instead, I sent them my own order of service, and encouraged them to read and pray through it at the same time.
DRIVING to the crematorium, the roads were very quiet — so quiet, in fact, that I ended up following the hearse for several miles at a stately 15mph, and no one seemed to mind. At this speed, you notice more. I watched two separate individuals crossing themselves as we drove past. In times of pandemic, it seems, old habits die hard.
Unsurprisingly, we arrived early and were met with the undertakers’ usual mix of quiet professionalism and gallows humour. They were keen to begin. I explained, however, that I had told the next of kin that we were starting at two o’clock; so perhaps we could wait? As we did so, the sound of the birds on the hillside above echoed into the entrance hall. Usually drowned out by the greetings of distant relatives and the sound of passing aeroplanes, it seemed a gentle reminder that, despite everything, creation lives on.
I greeted the coffin, turned, and read the sentences as we entered an empty chapel. The pallbearers came behind wheeling the coffin on a metal trolley, lifted it on to the catafalque, and departed, leaving me alone with the deceased and God.
I suddenly realised that I was both president and congregation, if not chief mourner. There seemed little point addressing empty chairs, so I faced the coffin, sensing myself “ad orientem”, and sent the deceased back to the God who had made them.
IN AN unhurried way, one can pray a lot in 15 minutes, and, apart from tribute, hymns, and address, my order of service was similar to other funerals. Limiting myself to a committal seemed somehow utilitarian and undignified. So, instead, God and I spoke.
I prayed for the sure benefits of his Son’s saving Passion and resurrection. I asked for forgiveness for the wrong that I have thought and said and done. He told me of the power of love through our reading from 1 Corinthians 13. He reminded me that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. It struck me that we will need more of that in the weeks to come. He reminded me that I now see through a glass darkly and know in part, but that I shall know even as I am fully known.
Hovering my hand over the coffin, I prayed that the deceased might go forth from this world and might dwell that day in peace. After the commendation and committal, I read Psalm 121, thought of the hills above, and wondered when the spring cuckoos might return.
I finished, as the next-of-kin had requested, with the blessing from the Prayer Book communion service, and realised that I was praying God’s blessing both upon me and upon two people gathered in a lounge in Surrey, unable to be with their next of kin through this final rite of passage.
When all was done, I let myself out and walked back to the car, wondering how many priests had stood alone at gravesides, bedsides, battlefields, or plague pits, and prayed similar words.
Returning home within the hour, I found that the latest online delivery had arrived and home schooling was in full flow on the kitchen table.
In the midst of death, it seems, we are also in life.
The Revd Nick Davies is Team Rector in the South Cheltenham Team Ministry, in the diocese of Gloucester.