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A space to reflect on Christian theology, spirituality, and ministry within the Church of England

Friday, 8 February 2013

Funeral Ministry - the Hardest Thing?

The view from the outside
Before I was ordained Deacon, one of my recurring worries was about funeral ministry. I tend to be a pretty emotional person. Pixar's "Up", for example, was a wonderful thing apart from the fact I was sobbing throughout. Im in floods at any vaguely moving moment in books, during my favourite music... The list goes on. Funerals I had attended in the past, as you can imagine, were no exception. I was terrified that as soon as I was put in the position of needing to minister to bereaved people or to conduct a funeral, I would fall to pieces.
Nor is this idea of funerals being the toughest area of ministry confined to ordinands. It's something I've encountered again and again through the past year or so. Going into a primary school to talk to seven year olds, one of the questions that was asked was about taking funerals. The children were discussing how some of them hadn't been allowed to attend family members' funerals because they would find it too distressing. One turned to me, still staggered at the thought that one day I'd be a 'vicar' and be leading funerals.

"Aren't you afraid you'll cry?" she asked.

Honestly, at that point, the answer was simple. "Yes," I replied. "I am."

What a difference a year makes.

Back in the summer of last year, at the garden party to celebrate my priesting and presiding at my first Eucharist, an experienced member of the congregation was sat next to me.

"So how have you found the past year?" she asked. "What's the hardest thing? I've always thought that funerals must be the hardest. I couldn't do it. How do you manage to keep yourself together?"

I smiled. "Actually, I've found it to be one of the most rewarding of all the things I do."

So what changed? Well, I discovered two things.

The role of the funeral minister
Firstly, when you’re meeting the bereaved family, or you're at the front of a church or chapel, leading that very particular act of remembrance and worship combined, you're a different person. You are occupying a role, and it's about what needs doing rather than what you're feeling. In case that sounds cold or callous, it's not. You still have empathy with the bereaved, you still care for their suffering, and are committed to doing the best you can to work with the ebb and flow of emotion and to make the funeral do what it's supposed to do.

So what's a funeral supposed to do? Well, it's a process. You begin by taking the congregation into a new space, surrounded by prayer and stillness. Into that space you evoke the person who's died. You call them to mind and memory, you allow the grief to be voiced, and for a moment you take the congregation into the darkest place - facing death. But then you lift them again. You invoke the hope at the heart of the Christian message, and even in the midst of grief, that hope lets in that crucial shaft of light. When people leave a funeral they should be brighter and more hopeful than they were when they walked in. That's why the special space is so important. It's a limbo that allows movement from one state of being to another, and at its best, allows the grieving process to move to the next stage.

When you're the person working to facilitate that process, your emotions and thoughts are about that not about your own emotions. To allow those to engage my mind to any extent would be selfish. It's not about me. It's about everyone else.

The support
Secondly, though a priest may look very isolated there at the front of the church during a funeral (or, come to that, during any act of worship) they're not. Before leading any kind of worship, before embarking on writing anything that will be used during worship, and during the writing process, I pray. I pray for inspiration from the Holy Spirit. I pray for strength to do what God needs me to do for His people. And when I stand at the front of the church I know I'm there with Christ beside me. When I speak, I do so in the power of the Spirit. I don't need to lean on my own strength.

That may sound odd to someone who doesn't believe in God, or does, but doesn't believe in God interacting in the world. This is one of those things that I can't really make clearer or put into other words, though. I can only tell you what I feel when I ask for that inspiration and strength and guidance. I feel warmed and upheld. I feel able to do things that I could not on my own. That's all there is to it.

This is doubly the case when faced with something as emotionally draining as a funeral. The Lord who called me to be who I am, a priest, doesn't leave me to manage on my own dubious emotional strength to serve his people. Every funeral visit, and every funeral, is surrounded by prayer - for the grace and wisdom to listen, to both feel and bear the pain of family and friends, and for the words to bring comfort and at least the beginning of the long process of healing. Those prayers are answered. I am supported and carried through those difficult moments with a strength that isn't my own.

It's an awesome privilege. When I'm called to take a funeral it means I'm invited into someone's home, into their pain, and they give me the person they've lost. They tell me about that person, they recount their life and their funny little habits, the things that made them laugh, the good times and the difficult ones.

Well... in the best situations they do. It's not always that easy. The process of grief moves in strange ways, and sometimes bereaved families are monosyllabic, unable to answer questions because it's just too much. Sometimes the person who's died wasn't very nice, or had dark secrets, or had a feud with other members of the family. Sometimes the surviving family and friends have their own feuds with each other which are then read into the funeral process. Suggestions are made that someone shouldn't be invited to the funeral, or be allowed to see the body, or, or... Those are the worst times. I'm glad to say that family feuds aren't something I've had to deal with yet. I'm not looking forward to it.

But by the end of a funeral visit, a person's life has been shared with me, and I've been trusted to take possession of that life just for a little while, until the funeral itself, when I give it back to the mourners, and to God.

The rare times
Having said all that, there are those rare occasions when funerals are indeed hard for me, and crying is a real risk. In my (admittedly limited) experience thus far this has happened twice. Both times were at childrens' funerals.

The first was a memorial service for a little girl, a twin, who lived for just 36 minutes. Her twin survived. I was 6 months pregnant at the time and I had cried buckets while writing the service. Thankfully during the service itself, the role and the support of the Spirit kept me going and my emotions didnt spill out. I was very glad to be able, in turn, to support that family in the awful position of being devastated at the loss of a child, and glad at the birth of a healthy child.

The second was just a couple of days ago at the funeral of a little boy of five, who had died of cancer. I have a son of my own now, a little guy of 3 months, and Im still officially on maternity leave. However, the bereaved parents asked me particularly if I would give the funeral address, and I was glad to do so. As I said, its a privilege. Maternity leave doesnt get in the way of that. (Should it? Where does the priest stop and the person needing maternity leave begin? A discussion for another time, I suspect.)

This time though, it was a real struggle. Im pretty sure that having recently given birth to my son, and being hopped up on all the hormones that breast feeding and parenthood produce made a significant difference. All the same, I was able to get through most of my words without giving in to my emotions. It was only at the very end, when I was talking about the Christian hope in life after death that they risked slipping through, and my voice wavered. I didnt choke, thank goodness, but it was a close run thing. Afterwards, at the funeral gathering, the bereaved mum came up to me. Sorry it was hard for you, she said. I boggled. Hard for me?! Well, yes it was, but nothing compared to anybody else in that church!

The joy
Does it seem odd that I mention joy in the same space as funerals? Probably! But for all the difficulty of those rare times when the grief is such that it challenges even the uplifting support that surrounds the priest while leading a funeral, there is joy to be had. When things go right, when the bereaved family and friends are lifted by the hope spoken in the liturgy and in my address, when they are able to smile at me afterwards, when people say things like, Somehow I felt so much better by the end,”… These are the good times, and achieving that is what funeral ministry is all about.

Because what makes funerals hard bringing people into the darkness, and feeling their pain thats only half the story. What its really about is the other half: bringing those hurting people back into the light, and pointing them onwards, both in terms of the person theyve lost, and in terms of their own lives. Thats what the Good News is. And in that is nothing but joy.


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  2. Doctors, nurses, counsellors, social workers, advisers, police etc - all are in the position you describe at some time or other. One becomes the authority figure, the who takes over, if you like - and by focusing on the needs of the other and the circumstances in which they arise, one's own usual emotional response is packed away for later. Presumably you would fail at selection if you could not appropriately control your emotions. Yes - and some of us inwardly pray for strength when the going gets tough.

    1. Hi radicalj, thanks for your comment! I should start by saying that this blog entry isn't an "applaud me because I can manage basic emotional continence!" pity party! You're right of course - many professions require high levels of emotional control. I do think the priestly role adds a slightly different note though, in that the aim is to address the grief itself, not the causes of the grief or the circumstances in which it emerges. The nature of the funeral is also special in that it places priest and mourners in a ritual process. I daresay the ritual framework might actually make things easier, as opposed to emergency workers (police, doctors, nurses etc.) who are in a much less controlled situation.

      It's interesting what you say about selection. Actually, I think this is one of the few areas that isn't checked at the selection stage. Certainly general emotional continence is checked, e.g. how we deal with anger and stress, can we handle pressured or deadline situations etc., but grief or sadness weren't so much as mentioned, at least not at my selection panel. That was one of the reasons why I was worried as an ordinand as to whether I'd be able to cope with funerals. It hadn't been tested.

      Perhaps the selectors know that with the rest of their training in place (practice leading worship, placing others' needs first, strong prayerful spiritual discipline) priests should be able to handle whatever comes their way?

  3. We were there on Wednesday and were greatly comforted by your sermon and its message of love and hope. It was a desolate February day outside, but the church was vibrant with racing red, yellow and orange, and the warmth and sincerity of your address allowed us to lift our eyes and our thoughts and to smile and be thankful.

    1. Hi Pads, thanks very much for your comment. I'm a little surprised, but very glad that folk who were there on Wednesday have found their way to this blog. I'm very happy that even through the heightened emotion of that day the hope I was aiming for was able to come through. Thank you so much for your kind words.

  4. Carolyn, I was also at the funeral on Wednesday, and you have captured very well the process everyone in that church went through. For what it's worth, I felt you did an outstanding job in fulfilling that role, capturing the essence of the life now ended, giving us all hope... and being an authentic human being and mother. Thank you.

    1. John, thank you very much for commenting, and for your lovely words. I'm just glad I was able to go some way in speaking and representing the hope and love to which I'm called. Bless you.