I experienced two contrasting funerals today, and they have made me think about the things that unite us as well as the things that divide us.
You might know already that I am a lay minister in my church and I am in the process of discernment as to whether I am a suitable candidate to be trained further, with a view to being ordained in the future. My ministry takes in lots of different things, including children’s work, leading worship and prayers, leading study groups and so on, and recently I have been increasingly involved with the funeral ministry that the church offers. I started off by shadowing the priest who conducted funerals, visiting the family and offering some pastoral support at the event itself. That quickly evolved into me saying prayers at funerals while the priest led the rest of the service, and then I began to deliver the eulogy and address too. More recently I have had the privilege to conduct the service from the beginning right up to the point of the committal, which for Church of England funerals can only be conducted by a priest. I have found funeral ministry fulfilling as well as challenging, and I am gaining experience every time I do one.
Funeral ministry might sound morbid and depressing but it is such a rewarding experience for me because not only do we get to share good news with people at a time when they are at their lowest, but when there are no words with which to frame that good news, we can stand alongside people and show them that they are not alone.
Which is why I wanted to talk to you about today’s funerals and the way that they are sitting with me and in my prayers today.
The first funeral was of a 41 year old man and the second was of a premature baby who died after living for an hour and 16 minutes. There are further contrasts between the two funerals, in that the first was filled with extended family and friends, with six pall bearers drawn from that circle, and the second was just the two parents who had come to mourn their loss, carrying a tiny white coffin themselves.
I visited the man’s family (I’ll refer to him as A for ease now) the day before yesterday with the priest who was to conduct the service (“E”) and was struck by just how close the brothers were, especially after hearing how the family had worked together to earn money and how they had informally adopted a lifelong friend into their midst when he found himself in difficulties. The visit was a noisy one, with everyone talking over each other to tell A’s story, and their memories came tumbling out with very little prompting from either E or myself. They were all keen to share their grief as well as some of the happier times they had shared with A before he died. Visits like this one are easier for me to deal with emotionally, because their keenness to talk and to share shows me signs that they are processing the death of their loved one and are prepared for the difficult time at the funeral ahead. It also means that the conversation flows easily and there is little prompting or nudging needed for them to tell their story.
E and I also visited the baby’s parents yesterday, and for me, that is where the deeper contrasts began to show themselves.
Baby C was the third child to this couple, and the visit took place with one of their other children in the room with us. It was very quiet, despite a toddler being there, and conversation was not quite as forthcoming as it was for the big family the day before. But how could it have been otherwise? Baby C didn’t have a story to tell, no escapades at school, no achievements or disappointments with exams or boyfriends and girlfriends and so on. But the parents were just as upset over their loss as A’s family were the day before.
The purpose of a funeral (for me) is a three-fold thing: it is to give thanks for the life of the deceased, for the bereaved to comfort each other, and to commit our brother or sister to the eternal care of God, and because we do those things at every funeral, they serve to unite us despite our differences and contrasts.
So how do we give thanks for the life of a baby whose heartbeat only lasted an hour and 16 minutes? How do we offer comfort to the parents who are grieving not only the physical loss of their child but also the loss of a life not even lived? How do we comfort a family whose brother has found life so difficult that he could only find solace and strength in alcohol? What can we say to ease the pain and disappointment, the anger and distress at the loss of a loved one no matter what their age is, or how many heartbeats they have had.
It is so, so hard, but for me, the answer to those questions lies in the one thing that united the two funerals today, and that is the promise of new life when we go from here. It is the promise that was made real by Jesus Christ, and it is what we celebrate every Easter when we remember his death and resurrection.
I can’t imagine that the bubble of grief in which the two parents have existed after the birth of their baby was ready to be punctured by the gospel message today, but I do hope and pray that the ministry they received from E and I this morning will stay with them and that they could draw some comfort from the prayers we offered. I doubt that many words will have been heard today, but I hope and pray that our being there, standing alongside both families in their grief made some difference to them.
There was a time at A’s funeral, when one of his brothers was overcome with grief, that the only thing to do was to stand and hold his hand and simply be there for him while he clutched at the coffin and cried out in anguish. It was a privilege to hold Baby C’s mother’s hand as the end of the service came, at the moment when she had to say her final goodbyes. I could feel the pain rolling off her, and there were simply no words I could have said to have eased it but to just hold her hand seemed to have made a difference to her.
So, yes, lots of contrasts in the two funerals, but lots of similarities too. Most important is the unifying message that this life is not the end, and God has his hands and eyes and ears all over us, from the moment we are knitted together in our mother’s wombs right through to the moment we see him face to face and beyond.