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Funeral ministry: the body of our low estate

by
29 October 2021

Jake Belder reflects on his position as priest, and that of the Church, in a Christian funeral

iStock

There is a communal aspect to burial which is missing in a cremation

There is a communal aspect to burial which is missing in a cremation

I AM conscious of my body at a funeral in a way that I am at perhaps no other time. In general, a priest is meant to fade into the background, subsumed into the office — a figure who represents the institution of the Church, and who disappears as Christ is presented to the world.

But, at a funeral, it feels very different. At centre stage is a coffin, that enduring symbol of lifelessness. Where the body of the deceased lies motionless, my body is the one that moves. The funeral director brings the coffin to the church, at which point I take over and escort the deceased all the way to their final resting place. There is no point at which my body is not there with the dead body.

It sometimes feels odd, deliberately inserting myself into a family’s story and sorrow. But, as the theologian Austin Farrer once said, “Priests are an embodied reminder that there is a God to be reckoned with who calls us to love and serve him.” Perhaps that is nowhere more true than in the priest’s presence at a funeral, where they are in focus at every moment, and pointing those present to realities that the vast majority of people do not consider at any other time in their lives.

At the same time, that presence increasingly jars with the expectations that people have of funerals. As death becomes further removed from our purview by advances in health and medical technology, funerals become more a sort of memorial than anything else. Families wish to celebrate the life of the deceased rather than confront the reality of death. These expectations, combined with changes in modern funeral rites, make it easy, as N. T. Wright suggests in Surprised by Hope (SPCK, 2008) to do “little to enlighten [mourners] and plenty to mislead them or confirm them in their existing muddle” about the afterlife. Instead of a grounded hope, they are left only with a “vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end”.

A bishop once told me that, when he was still in parish ministry, he refused all attempts to make the deceased the exclusive focus of the service. Eulogies or tributes were placed near the beginning; family members were welcome to stand up to pay their respects. But the service had to end with the priest standing alone, so that Jesus would have the final word. For him, this was crucial to any Christian funeral.

To be sure, we love and serve our parishioners by joining with them in giving thanks for the life of someone they loved. But we fail to love and serve them if we do not take seriously that calling of the priest: to represent Christ to the world. My presence there with the deceased is not incidental, and I am not willing to allow it to be. If I am set apart by the Church to represent Christ to the world, then my body must be present there from start to finish. Because life and death make sense only in the light of Christ, and that hope must be proclaimed to the world.

The Revd Dr Jake Belder 

FUNERALS provide a decided moment of closure for most people. The time between the death of a loved one and their cremation or burial is often a time of pain and confusion — a time that can bring old family divisions to the fore, a time that is consumed with practicalities and executorial duties.

In many ways, the first time those closest to the bereaved are given space to begin to let go of the person they loved is at the funeral itself. Here, the Church’s words come with power, because they vocalise that grief. They offer a farewell that is clothed in reverence and dignity, deeply rooted in a theological anthropology that recognises the value of all human beings in the sight of their Maker. And they hold it all up to God, laying the deceased, and the pain and confusion of the mourners, at his feet.

Then we pray: “Now we entrust them into your care, confident in your goodness and mercy, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Whatever those present know (or don’t know) about God, this petition often seems to have the effect of lifting a large burden off their shoulders. People seem to take some comfort in the idea that the deceased is now “up there” somewhere with God, ambiguous as that may be.

For me, this final prayer is a great comfort, too, because rarely do I know those I bury, or the faith commitments that they may or may not have had. But I do serve God, who “is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings” (Psalm 145.17). What I do not know, he does know, and no matter who lies in that coffin in front of me, I can trust that he will do what is best for them.

There is a charitableness to this, without which I could not conduct this ministry. But more must be said. I am always struck by the moment in the funeral service when there is a decided shift in focus from the deceased to the bereaved.

At the time of committal, we often say words from Psalm 103, reminding those gathered of the mercy and grace of God, the brevity of life, and the everlasting nature of his love. We clearly call them to consider that this is their own end, and, from this point forward, to live in the light of the resurrection. God is just and kind in all his doings, but the fullness of his blessing rests on those who are willing to die now, united by faith with Christ in his death, so that they might be raised to new life with him.

That step taken, we can pray: “Then, Lord, in your mercy grant us safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This all seems perfectly natural for a Christian funeral. But it takes on a prophetic edge when the majority of the people whom we bury, and their grieving families, are not confessing Christians. The Church is present in this moment to reorder the world of the mourners. In what may be the span of only 45 minutes, we situate their lives and the life of their loved one in the story of the gospel. Life is both not as they know it, and more than they know. We invite them into a new way of inhabiting the world, to prepare them to inhabit their grave.

 iStock The witness of a churchyard is powerful

HERE, the physical embodiment of the Church becomes profoundly important, and, to me, much of the power of this prophetic ministry is lost in crematoria, detached as they are from a physical and tangible witness. You are removed from a building that has stood for hundreds and hundreds of years as a testament to the resurrection, a building hallowed by generations of prayer, a building whose often cruciform footprint standing at the centre of a community points to the event that stands at the centre of history, a building immediately surrounded by a community awaiting the resurrection.

Instead, you find yourself in a sterilised chapel, merely a function room that is often far removed from the community in which the deceased lived, and in which the final moments of the body’s passage to its final resting place are almost entirely mechanised. For those of us who have had behind-the-scenes tours of a crematorium, the clinical nature of the “storefront” and chapel are magnified that much more by the industrial feel of the area behind the curtains.

In a place that simply seems to absorb a body into a void, a signal of a return to nothingness, profoundly disjoined from the hope of resurrection, we are called to speak. Telling, in this regard, is the fact that funeral directors have whole shelves in their storerooms filled with ashes that family members never come to collect.

While I can only speak of this anecdotally, there is generally a more prevailing sense of peacefulness at a graveside. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that burial has been the normative practice in our society for so long; despite the prevalence of cremation now, it remains something much more recent, and in some ways at odds with the deep-seated notions of life and death embedded in our cultural imagination.

But I think that it also has to do with the communal aspect of burial. It is true that I die, but it is also true that we all die. And a graveyard is a kind of embodied witness to this. We retain not only our connection with those we have loved, but a visible connection with our own end.

The witness of a churchyard is particularly powerful here, because, even though people are no longer interred in many churchyards, the procession of a funeral into the church often still makes its way through the churchyard. Here is not just our connection with generations past in this local place, but the absorption of the lives of those in this community in a single story. From beginning to end, from baptism to burial, this is where the journey of life is held together.

But here we also assume a posture of hope. Those interred in churchyards face east, just as those within the church face the altar at the east end. Both in worship and in death, we testify to the resurrection. The building, the people, and the deceased are joined together in an embodied and defiant statement that death is overcome by the one who holds all of life in his hands.

 

ALL OF this said, funeral ministry is increasingly challenging. For all that I may understand and believe about what I am doing, I know that much of this is lost on those I minister to, as the world around us is increasingly detached from the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. And, every year, fewer and fewer people request a church funeral.

Yet, however the world may change, my calling as a parish priest remains. This is a ministry of presence: I am set apart to make my body visible in a particular place and among a particular community of people, and, in doing so, to make visible Christ and the Church. I am here for no other reason than to carry into my parish the only true story of hope and life, and to call others to take their place in that story. As those in my care face a world of confusion and death, there is nothing greater that I can offer.


The Revd Dr Jacob Belder is Vicar of the Pocklington Group of Churches, in the diocese of York.

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