Whatever happened to Funerals?

Oct 14, 2021 by

by Rev Martin Down in Church of England Newspaper October 15

No, I am not referring to those restrictions on funerals that we have endured during the pandemic.  I am referring to the content of the funeral services themselves.

A funeral service, whatever its content, is an important part of the process of grieving.  It is a formal way of saying goodbye.  The very act of lowering the body into the ground, or of closing the curtain round the coffin at the crematorium, is a final parting with the deceased, a final act of letting go.  But the words that are said, and the hymns or songs that are played and sung, are also important elements in what we are doing.

I have been ordained as a priest in the Church of England for over 50 years and have conducted more funerals than I can count.  For the first 15 or 20 of those years all these services would have been conducted according to the 17th century Book of Common Prayer.  There were three main elements of this service: some psalms which reminded us all of the transitoriness of life, a lengthy reading from 1 Corinthians 15 setting forth the Christian hope of the resurrection of the dead, and finally, prayers for mercy for the deceased person and for us all that we might be received into God’s heavenly Kingdom.  There was no provision for any address or sermon, let alone for some biography or eulogy in praise of the dead.

The Alternative Service Book was authorized in the Church of England in 1980. This provided more variety in the choice of psalms, readings and prayers, and also for a short sermon by the officiating minister about the Christian hope.  It also provided formally for the singing of appropriate hymns.  But the focus of the service was still on God, thanking him for the life of the departed and commending that person into God’s merciful keeping.

The first time I was asked if a relative could say a few words about the deceased during the funeral service must have been a few years after this.  It is true that I had spent most of my life serving in country parishes and perhaps things had moved on faster in the towns, but I was surprised by this request.  I gave permission with some hesitation, with the proviso that whatever was said should be written down, shown to me first, and then read by the relative at the service.  Little did I realize that that permission, given by me and others, would end up changing the whole tenor and focus of funeral services in the years to come.  Permission for the minister or some other person to speak about the deceased during the service was formally enshrined in the Common Worship Funeral Service in 2000 in a tiny red rubric: A brief tribute may be made.

Similarly, the first time I was asked by a family if we could have a recording of a secular song played during the course of the funeral service was in the early 90s.  The song requested had been, of course, a favourite of the man who had died: Elvis Presley singing Jailhouse Rock.   I said, No.  I tried to explain that this would be out of keeping with the rest of the service, and distract us from the business of saying goodbye and commending their loved one into the hands of Almighty God.  I suggested that if the family wished to remember him in this way, it could be done afterwards at the gathering in the Village Hall.  This at least put down a marker in the parish for future funerals, but at the time it was received with a bad grace.  Since then however the intrusion of such secular music into funerals has become commonplace,

Today a funeral service, even in the Church of England, and certainly in the less formal rites that families organize for themselves in the cemetery or crematorium chapel, has become primarily a series of reminiscences about the departed, delivered by a variety of friends and relations, often interrupted by the speaker sobbing, often highly selective and sometimes even mendacious.  Apart from Crimond or All things bright and beautiful, the music also is predominantly secular, drawn from the repertoire of the DVDs that the deceased had liked to play.

Thus, funeral services, even sometimes in church, have changed their focus and spirit entirely.  The focus used to be upon God and the Christian hope.  Now the focus is on the person who has died, looking back on the life that is past, rather than forward  to the life that is to come, remembering the dead rather than the living God, and wallowing in nostalgia rather than pleading for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Of course all this is but a reflection of the way in which the world itself has changed around us.   God has been squeezed out of most peoples lives altogether by the demands of getting and spending, of eating, drinking and being merry.  The god called the NHS has persuaded us that life can be infinitely prolonged, and that we need not even consider what happens when we die.  By the time we get to old age ourselves every illness will be curable, and health and safety will have made all accidents ‘things that will never happen again’.  Today we are all good people, except of course for the bogeymen, the paedophiles and terrorists, but not us, not me, “I’m a good person”.

So what hope is there?  I hope that Christians will make sure that their funerals will continue to focus on God and the life of the world to come.  I have already drawn up a few instructions for my own, including the stipulation that there shall be no eulogies.  I hope that Christian ministers of all denominations will not allow the funerals that they are asked to conduct to be hijacked by our secular culture, but provide an opportunity for the Gospel to be preached and heard.  Beyond that I can only hope that the corruption of our society and culture that I have witnessed in my lifetime in the realm of funeral services will be reversed by a God-sent revival, and a return to the Lord and Saviour of us all, Jesus Christ.  We are not all going to the same place in the end when we die and we had better wake up to it now, before it is too late.



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