Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Reflections from an autumn funeral

A couple of new experiences in one day.  No.1 - officiating at the funeral of a member of my own family; No.2 - officiating at a funeral (the same one) in a context free of even nominal reference to Christianity or indeed to conventional religious faith of any kind.

No.1 proved slightly harder than I had thought.  I had expected those who were closer to the departed than I to be emotional; but I hadn't expected to be upset myself.  All had gone well until the Commendation.  Hymns had been sung, prayers had been prayed, and some fulsome and tearful tributes made.  But then it was time to say farewell, and I heard my voice quavering dangerously during the Nunc Dimittis and subsequent prayers.  I was supposed to be in control, and I imagined that the gathered company would be anxious that I might not make it, that I would break down and need a moment or two to gather myself.  In fact I didn't, and they weren't, as far as I could tell.  But I was reminded of a little nugget of advice that we had been given in training: "When you are ordained, you may at some point be asked to conduct the funeral of someone you loved.  If so, it is sometimes better to ask someone else to do it."  I understood why in theory; now I understand why in practice.


No.2 was also an education.  The funeral took place in a woodland burial park in the countryside beyond the outer fringe of London.  This is a place where religion is not absent by default, but by design.  It is, if you like, an explicitly unreligious place: not even the smallest regulation cross of the kind that you often find in the chapel of a local authority crematorium.  In fact, as we awaited the mourners, etched into the glass of the Scandanavian-style beechwood "woodland hall" we noticed some expressions of a spirituality that was, well, unrelated to that of any organised religion.  The venue itself was lovely in its way - much nicer than your average council crem.  In a sort of Grand Designs contemporary style: warm, comfortable and light, smelling faintly of resin, the huge windows providing a pleasing backdrop of dense broadleaf woodland - on this day bathed in glorious autumn sunshine - through which the coffin is at last borne to the grave or crematorium.  I thought it would make a rather nice monastery chapel.  But while its management is apparently open to religious ceremony and expression of all kinds, it seems to regard this - in a devoutly post-modern way - as a matter of personal preference.  Not against religion; but somehow firmly neutral on it. 

I think this is a different phenomenon from secularisation or the alleged "marginalisation of Christianity" about which we hear some people whining from time to time.  Rather, it seems to me to be a tacit and grown-up acknowledgement that Christianity is no longer the universal state religion that we assume it once was (but in reality stopped being a very long time ago) - indeed that there is now no common religion. Christianity has to fight for its place in the market-place of belief along with all the others - including the anti-believers.  Since Christianity was from the outset proselytical - a religion of the market-place - this neutrality should not be a threat, but an opportunity, and a sort of homecoming.

1 comment:

  1. I found your descriptions of both funerals thought-provoking. So far as the member of your family is concerned, I do find leading any church service is an emotional occasion. I do not have the experience of taking funeral services but imagine that is particularly emotional, for obvious reasons. To add to the existing emotional undertone the fact of conducting a service for someone from your family I think would be difficult - even if your relationship was quite distant, you would be thinking of his or her place in the family and the effect of their death on the family as a whole.
    And the woodland burial park 'chapel' looks lovely. Interesting that you say you saw signs of spirituality - devising an appropriate liturgy must be difficult on such occasions.