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.

End of Life (aka Death)

I was pleased this week that the vote in the Scottish Parliament to change the law on so-called assisted dying didn’t manage to make any further progress. Parliamentarians have now had a number of chances to think about this and vote on it and it still failed comprehensively to get anywhere near a majority of parliamentarians supporting it.

Yet in survey after survey we are told that people support it.

What’s going on?

It seems to me that any of us would be frightened of finding ourselves in a situation where we were left alone and in pain. People do die bad deaths alone and in pain in Scotland. Somehow many people then manage to make a jump in their heads to saying that the law should be changed to allow people to request help to end their lives.

I can’t make that jump myself. The current situation seems to me to be the right one. I have no problem with the idea that a doctor might give a treatment that improved the quality of someone’s life whilst knowing that the life itself might be shortened by doing so. I do have a problem with a drug being given or withheld where the very purpose is to hasten life.

To put it bluntly, if people are frightened of the idea of individuals dying alone and in pain then there are things we can do about that that fall a long way short of killing people off.

I don’t want to see the law changed but I do want to see a lot of things surrounding death to be changed.

I want hospices to be better funded.
I want more palliative care consultants to be trained.
I want money to be put into pain clinics.
I want more research to be put into pain relief.
And I want us to talk a bit more honestly about who should be with the dying if we don’t want dying people to die alone. Who would actually benefit from lives being shortened at will? The patient is not the only person affected by a death, nor the only possible person to derive any “benefit” from life being cut short.

These are so sensitive things to talk about and there are far more issues involved in decisions about end of life care than could ever be resolved in a bill in parliament.

It is good that people are talking about this more. The “death cafe” movement seems to me to be a good thing. Allowing people who are living to talk about the business of dying has to be positive. Sometimes we get into those kind of issues when I’m doing my “Plan your own funeral” workshop – which I’ve just been asked to do in other parts of the diocese too.

I recently conducted the funeral of someone who had had that kind of conversation about his funeral just a couple of weeks before he actually died. It was the most profound thing to have happened, and in the end one of the most profound and beautiful funerals that left me completely in awe of the person who had died and the plans he had made.

Parliamentarians have difficult decisions to make here. We all do. But the priority must be to protect the vulnerable. My judgement is different to the judgement of many and even maybe the majority. I don’t think the vulnerable would be best served by changing the law.

Doctors need to be able to make informed decisions and help others to make informed decisions but we are in an area where sometimes decisions will be tested hard. I’m not alone in thinking that things have become harder for many doctors since Harold Shipman’s crimes were revealed. No doctor wants to be accused to acting too swiftly. No health authority wants to risk harbouring someone who simply wants to kill. But we must be wary of restrictions on care that might prevent doctors taking action which relieves pain where that might be possible.

If I were dying and in terrible pain, would I not want my life to be ended more quickly and more intentionally and more humanely? Well maybe I would. But I’m not the only person in the world and that description of someone dying doesn’t come close to the complexity of what really happens when someone’s life is drawing to a close. There are far more people to think about – not just relatives but those who will die after we do.

So yes, I want pain to be relieved. Yes, I can imagine situations where I’d prefer to die than to live. But no, for the good of those who are vulnerable, for the good of those whose deaths would be a relief to others, for the good of those who are vulnerable and often least able to make autonomous choices, for all their sakes, I don’t think that the law should be changed.