This week, I heard an announcement of a state funeral for a significant member of the community, who had recently died.
The radio announcer said “There will be a ‘celebration of the life of ‘X’’ in the Recital Centre.
This announcement captured my attention. These days, the most common way of describing what happens after a person dies is not to have a ‘funeral’, but a celebration of their life.
When I have spoken to mourners who have come to me to arrange the funeral of their loved one, they often say “Oh, we don’t want a ‘funeral’, we would rather have a celebration of their life.
So I thought that having been in the business of being a Christian priest, part of whose job it is to arrange and conduct funerals, I thought that this sentiment ought to be unpacked.
Is seems to me that the term ‘celebration of life’ has become a cliché. Like all clichés it both reveals something, and hides something.
For me, the emphasis on a ‘celebration of life’ comes from the fact that many people see a ‘funeral’ as being too much focused on loss.
Many people want to read the poem by Henry Scott-Holland and say
Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.
Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
This is not a ‘bad’ sentiment, in itself, but here is something interesting.
Henry Scott-Holland was a priest. He wrote this poem, minimising death, because he believed that dying was not all that there is. He ends his poem with
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just round the corner.*
All is well.
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
Believing that death is not an ‘uyltimate’ reality, but a secondary one, places a person’s life in a particular context.
But when the Christian context of a person’s life is not there, the all hat is left is this life, the past, and the desire to ‘celebrate’ that life.
Thanks to my mentor, David, I have been made aware that a funeral has much more to it than a celebration of a person’s life.
Here is what as passed on to me, which I now pass onto you.
The first thing to say is that a Christian Funeral is a pastoral event. This means that although there are prayers said and so on, it is possible for non believers to be present without being offended, or asked to do anything that they can’t with integrity, participate in.
Because a funeral is a ‘liturgy’ (i.e., work!) there are a number of tasks that need to be achieved.
First, we give thanks to God for the life of the person whop has died. This is the ‘celebration of their life’, but it is done ‘God-ward’ as it were. We acknowledge our being creatures of the Creator, and return thanks to God for the life of the person who has died.
But there is more! The very measure of the value of a person’s life is the same measure in which we will miss them because they have died. So allowing ourselves to grieve, in public officially is an important pastoral element of a funeral. We do not ‘hold it together’ and pretend that we have not lost someone, but tell the truth, and mourn their loss.
Being in the presence of a coffin is a p[powerful wake up call too, that we will all die. Being aware o our own mortality ,makes us gentler on our own perfectionist selves, and is a spur to fix up that which is not yet healed, before we too die!
Finally, it is possible in a funeral to make meaning out of death. We can give expression to the hope that the sundering that is represented by death is not the primary reality, but that the putting-together that makes for life and love is, since Easter Day the primary reality in which we live, whether we know it or not, that is what Christians say about death.
For the sake of those who will be alive when I am dead, I would much rather have a funeral, with all of the things in it that I have mentioned, than a celebration of my life.