It is always interesting to swap roles from time to time. Recently I was at a funeral as a mourner, rather than as the celebrant, and so I was able to see how the conduct of a funeral might look to ‘the unchurched’, as we call them, or to someone who came to mourn a friend or loved one, but who was not familiar with the priest or with the form of service.
Here are my reflections.
First, I find funerals terribly passive occasions as a member of the congregation. The trend these days is for the funeral director to produce an order of service, but they are generally only made up of two pages on the inside, with hymns perhaps, and the outline of what is going to happen.
Not all the prayers are printed, and so the congregation must sit and listen for the majority of the service.
When I am conducting a funeral, I speak to the people informally, beforehand, and invite them to support the family of the deceased by saying the words for them written in ‘heavy type’. But I do understand that many people, who are not used to how worship goes, will be shy in making their responses, or for reasons of integrity, unable to say the words.
The other thing that makes for passive participation is the very common use of the ‘photo montage’ . Modern technology has made this possible, and all of the younger members of ‘the family’ know how to work it seamlessly.
I used not to like them, just out of prejudice I think. But this time, I loved the series of pictures about the life of the deceased person. They gave me an insight into facets of his life, which I had not known, as his former priest. It enriched my picture of him. So I think the advent of the ‘photo montage’ is a good development.
The other thing that adds to passivity is the eulogies. Sometimes people are very ill disciplined, so that a funeral that could normally go for 45 minutes goes for 90 minutes.
While I enjoy being the centre of attention as much as the next person, and enjoy presiding at funerals, I have seen enough to say, half jokingly, ‘Never give a microphone to a police officer or CFA volunteer at a funeral!’
The need for discipline in speaking is important, especially at funerals.
But then my attention turned to the way in which the priest was presiding.
I was thinking, “I knew this person who has died, and who has died too young. Will this priest do him justice?
Will he say anything that is useful to me? Does he know anything wise to say that will add anything to silence? Can I trust this person?
I do not know whether anyone else was asking such questions of the priest, but I wonder was I asking too much?
The bringing together of many people who have not been brought up in the Christian faith, and a priest, whose whole work life is based upon being the public face of the same faith is perhaps one of the most difficult of all professional relationships.
My hope is that I can appear to be ‘fair dinkum’; that I do not speak in clichés, and that the people who come feel welcome.
This is the importance of meeting with the family beforehand. Sometimes I get that sense of a really good connection between them and me, and it is an absolute pleasure to be of service to them.
Sometimes I am not able to ‘connect’, and this makes the work more difficult. Sometimes I have not met with one or two important people, whose views are different from mine, and so at the actual funeral, I make mistakes, or misread the congregation, and so give cause for unhappiness among the mourners.
But most of all I want to say something sensible about the Christian faith and about death that is both true to me and what I believe and will come across as authentic to those who hear it.
Sermons, despite the emphasis that we give to them, are mostly forgotten five minutes after they are delivered. Sometimes, the ‘feeling’ of a sermon is remembered long after the content has been forgotten.
But at a funeral, the preacher has the opportunity to talk about life and death. This is not often addressed, even in Church, except perhaps at Easter. But at a funeral, one cannot avoid the topic of life or death, and the worst thing that can happen is that the person who stands in the place of Jesus has nothing to say that makes any difference!
So I started this reflection asking about how the priest/celebrant came across to me. But now I see, that I am asking myself! How do I come across? Is my ‘funeral manner’ and my ‘funeral sermon’ (there really is only one) such that those who have come hear some solid news upon which they can rest their grieving souls? They may have come not because of the faith but because they knew the person who has died. But my hope is that they go away knowing that by being in Church they have come into contact with something far more real and solid than much else that passes for consolation.