The Episcopal Way of Death

I shall spend a considerable part of my work today thinking about how to help the congregation here to face death. Face their own deaths and face the reality of the deaths of those they have known through the years – the reality of those whom they have loved with a passion and the reality of the deaths of those whom they have not loved too.

Death is simple. It shows us the complexity of life.

As today is All Souls’ Day, we’ll be having our annual requiem. This is a service at which we remember by name those who have died. The intercessions consist of remembering the names and praying, “Rest in peace”.

It is not the case, I think that most people come to this service thinking that they can somehow by praying for the dead in this way liberate them from hell or punishment or limbo though given the changing history of Christian attitudes to death it is possible that some will come for that reason. For most people, it is more that we pray that our memories of them might be allowed to be at peace – that the ways we think of them might not prevent us from living. In remembering that the dead are safe with God, we pray that all that they were might be at peace in the memory of them that remains as part of our grief here on earth.

Tonight’s service is intense. It is supposed to be. But it is pastoral too – it allows us to let the dead be dead and can allow griefs to be eased. We remember with intensity for a moment so that we can let go of that intensity and live again.

The annual requiem which many of our churches keep is but a part of the Episcopal Way of Death.

The requiem is always a communion service. It always feels to me as though heaven and earth draw close at this service. As we remember those who have died, we eat and drink the bread and wine united in some way with them as they share whatever it is that the joys of heaven are. I know nothing about the joys of heaven, but I never conduct a funeral without feeling that the person who has died is now with God.

The funeral service that we have in our church is very simple. You can find it online here: – http://www.scotland.anglican.org/who-we-are/publications/liturgies/revised-funeral-rites-1987/.

There are many important things about our funeral service, but perhaps the most important is to quote from the introduction: “Such words as are printed here are no substitute for the pastor’s own use of sensitivity and imagination.”

The service begins not in church but with prayers to use with relatives at the time they are bereaved. There are prayers for the closing of the coffin and for a time when a coffin leaves the house and begins the journey to church.

It seems to me that these prayers are not used that much these days. Even in 1987 when the funeral rite was written it was more common for a coffin to be kept at home before being brought to church. Now everything seems to point towards the coffin being kept at the premises of the “funeral director” and I’m not 100% sure that’s a good thing.

There are a number of lovely things about the Episcopal Way of Death and chief amongst them is bringing the coffin to church to rest overnight before a funeral. It isn’t always possible but it is a lovely thing when it happens. Our prayer is largely the prayer of silence but this simple ritual allows those most bereaved to see the coffin and think about what might take place on the next day. Generally I find that people say that the coffin coming to church the night before makes the funeral much easier somehow.

Simple words and silence uphold us.

Father,
give peace to your servant.
whose body now rests in this place:
May the prayers of your whole Church uphold him/her
and support us in face of death’s mystery;
may the stillness of this house enter into us,
and our silence be the token of our trust. Amen.

After a time of silent prayer, the evening collect is said:

Lighten our darkness. Lord, we pray,
and in your mercy defend us
from all perils and dangers of this night;
for the love of your only Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Episcopal Way of Death is under threat at the moment from those who seem to want to make death smaller and forgettable. In particular it is under threat from undertakers who seem to think that they know best.

Get a few clergy together and get them talking about death and it will not be long before someone says, “Oh, I had a funeral recently where they wanted to take the body and cremate it first and then have a ‘celebration’ in the afternoon”. This seems to be becoming more and more popular and most clergy I know hate it.

We hate it because it has all the symbolism of getting rid of a body so that you can get on with celebrating. And although that isn’t at the forefront of people’s mind, this is an area where symbols matter. Matter hugely.

The Episcopal Way of Death is a journey with the person who has died. We take the body somewhere. We accompany someone though something. The symbols of a Christian funeral have been forged in the crucible of grief and pain by way of doing something that is helpful.

The idea that a funeral with a coffin present cannot be celebratory is nonsense too. When I think back to notable funerals, I find myself thinking of funerals with hearty singing. When I go I want them to sing Easter hymns in the same manner they sing them on Easter Day. Loud Easter hymns are the perfect response to death. I find myself thinking of funeral addresses that have been funny, celebratory, sad, profound and heart aching all in one. I remember one slightly bawdy one from a great preacher that made me laugh and cry in equal measure. The tears and the laughter are all part of the journey.

People do themselves out of a lot of good if they try to have a funeral without the body present. And anyway, it isn’t the Episcopal Way of Death – any priest is entitled to say, “Well if you want that kind of secular service, who is going to conduct it and where will it be? Our liturgies don’t provide for that kind of thing, and for good reason.”

A funeral is a journey. It is a pilgrimage. It is a pathway. And it is supposed to help.

If the people gather without a body, they will miss hearing things that can comfort.

Go forth upon your journey from this world,
dear child of God,
into the hands of the Father who made you,
to find life in Christ who redeemed you,
to rejoice in the Spirit who renews you.
May the heavenly host sustain you
and the company of the redeemed enfold you;
may peace be yours this day,
and the heavenly city your home. Amen

Note, those who undertake to do things for those who are bereaved are Undertakers. Funeral Director implies a profession which tells people what to do and is not in my view a helpful designation.

If someone is a communicant in the church, there is nothing more fitting than to have a Eucharist for the funeral. People sometimes worry that there will be those there who don’t approve or who do not feel involved. I’ve never heard this from those present – indeed, I’ve heard very often an expression of admiration for a liturgy that connects with the faith that the person had in life.

I remember once celebrating the Eucharist with the family when they brought the body to church the night before and that was a lovely thing and appropriate for them. But a full requiem with the coffin present can be incredible, life affirming and life changing.

Which brings us back to the service tonight. It is a requiem for those who have people they need to be prayed for. It is a requiem for those who have no-one else to pray for them. It is a requiem for the forgotten as much as for the remembered. It is a requiem about ourselves – there’s no getting away from the fact that when I’m preparing it, I’m thinking about how I will die and how I hope someone will pray for me. And it is a requiem about life as much as about death.

It is open to everyone and I often find myself urging those who have joined the congregation from other traditions to come and simply be there with whatever memories and griefs they have.

Death can be cruel. Grief is agony. But let it not overwhelm us. Beauty and love are good for all that hurt us.

O Lord, support us all the day long
of this troublous life,
until the shades lengthen,
and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then, Lord, in your mercy
grant us safe lodging,
a holy rest,
and peace at the last;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Comments

  1. Rosemary Hannah says:

    The greatest privilege I have ever had in the service of the people of the church was to be the person who received the coffin the night before the funeral and led Compline then. The church was on an island, and the coffins those of people I loved and honoured. It was deeply moving for everybody there. I hope one day that will be done for me and mine.

  2. Sr Alison Joy says:

    I have prayed washed and dressed Sisters who have died and it helped me to see that death is not scary. I have lined a number of Sisters graves with flowers around the inner edge from the inside, also helpful. The body was received at Vespers in Chapel the day before, Solemn Requiem was the next day complete with asperges and incense. We returned from the graveside and when in Chapel sung a very joyful favorite hymn for the Sister we had just buried. It was always a sad, happy, remembering occasion I hope that I will be able to have most of this too.

  3. Sarah Lawton says:

    This is beautifully said.

    When my parents died in a car crash, we knew our Episcopal church would be too small to accommodate all the mourners; but the local Roman Catholic congregation saw our need and graciously offered the use of their space for our Episcopal funeral (including Eucharist led by two Episcopal bishops). They also offered their pall for the second coffin as we had only one. All the churches and the synagogue in town offered choir members and/or food for the feast after the service. An ecumenical, indeed, interfaith foretaste of heaven!

    We placed the two bodies in closed coffins in our Episcopal church the night before; we prayed Evensong and Compline, and received a long line of visitors; and then parishioners kept vigil with the bodies all night. In the morning we prayed over the bodies before beginning the procession to the larger RC church where the (Episcopal) funeral was to be held. In this sad, glorious service sang many, many Easter hymns, and I learned that it’s possible to sing and sing even through tears. I’m told that people reconciled that day who had not spoken in years – I’ve heard it from both parties (one now a bishop).

    All of which is to say: our Episcopal Way of Death can be a profound grace if we let it. It can be profound too when it’s a simple, small, quiet service for a person who has lived a long life and died of old age (unlike my parents). It’s the same words, the same truth of loss – all of us pass through this life but for a moment – the same mystery, the same words of affirmation and hope at the grave: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

    • Thank you for posting that – bearing witness to exactly what I was trying to say.

    • Michael Povey says:

      Thanks Sarah. (Other readers, Sarah is a friend. I was at the Funeral and heard her offer the most profound Gospel Centred and Honest Grief eulogy I have ever heard)

  4. Having attended a few funerals in our parish recently – one of them for our Vicar, who died on Easter Eve – and being nearer to the grave myself (at 85 and still active as a priest) I appreciate, Father Kelvin, the care you take over this special subject. The Church can be so close to families at this special time – giving them a taste of ‘The great love of God as revealed in the Son’ – precious at this time.

  5. Tony Whatmough says:

    There are sometimes good reasons for having the cremation first, as there was for my brother yesterday especially with people traveling and wanting to be able to bury the ashes on the same day. They key is to talk with the family about what they are looking for and how it can be done.

    • Dear Tony, I’m sorry to hear that you’ve lost your brother. May be rest in peace and rise in glory.

      There are always reasons why people want to have a cremation first and people always believe that they are good reasons. Every single time there are reasons. My contention is that I’m unpersuaded that any of them justify changing what we believe. (What we do and what we believe being utterly bound up with one another in such circumstances).

      My point about funerals is very precisely that the wishes of the family are important but that no tradition will survive if we simply abandon what we believe for reasons of convenience.

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