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: –

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.

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.

Trolleys are for Supermarkets

I had a lovely morning today conducting a funeral service. Oh, I know lots of people don’t get that this can be satisfying but to me I can’t really think of a more lovely way of spending a morning than committing someone who has died at a great age into the love of God. The fact that the person who had died had in large part lived to make the world more beautiful only made it more lovely.

I was struck by a brief conversation with the undertaker before the service went in. This wasn’t a busy funeral – the person who had died had outlived most of those who might once have come to celebrate her life. As the coffin was being taken out of the hearse, I was surprised to see three members of the undertaker’s staff join him in lifting the coffin onto their shoulders.

“Oh, you don’t use a trolley?” I asked in surprise.

The answer that I got was wonderful –

“No, Mr Holdsworth, trolleys are for supermarkets, we always carry the coffin in”.

I cannot tell you how pleased I was to hear this.

So many funerals seem to involve a squeaky and undignified trolley. I even have to insist sometimes that the coffin is lifted onto proper tressels during the funeral itself. There’s many a person in the funeral business who would leave a coffin on the trolley throughout.

Am I alone in thinking that there’s not much dignity in a coffin on wheels?

I know there will be exceptions where a trolley is necessary and I guess that, in an industry that has seen costs soaring, it is going to cost more if one has to pay the pallbearers but I do prefer a coffin to be carried into church rather than pushed.

At some crematoria where I’ve officiated the presumption is so much in favour of wheels that a kind of roll-on, roll-off trolley has become an integral part of the proceedings.

We don’t talk that much about death, though there are some valiant attempts to get us to do so. There’s the death café movement that gathers people to talk about death and I seem to remember an initiative in the Church of England called Grave Talk which was an attempt to build up a conversation.

I know that any undertakers will arrange for pallbearers to carry a coffin in properly if you ask them. That’s what undertakers do – they undertake to make the arrangements for you. I’m someone who mourns the transformation of undertakers into “funeral directors” – the very term seems to imply that the business knows better than either the celebrant who has probably got a bit of experience on how to do things properly, the relatives (who may, if they are feeling particular grief may well feel better for being involved in the funeral planning and service) and indeed the wishes of the person who has died if they did  the sensible thing and left instructions.

The joy today was finding a company which just don’t normally use a trolley as policy. It is a small thing but an important one.

Funeral trolleys always remind me of the wobbly nave altar in St Ninian’s Cathedral in Perth, which itself always looked as though it had been purloined from a hospital porter.

Now where did undertakers’ trolleys come from? And why do people put up with them?

They are hideous. Always hideous.

No. No. Away ye trolley-bearers.

And congratulations to Sim and Son for their trolley-free policy.

(I’m happy to link to any other undertakers in the West of Scotland who never use a trolley)