A Tale of Two Funerals -some learning experiences!

January 7th

A Tale of Two Funerals – You Can’t Please Everybody All of the Time… 

So 34 years in Lay Ministry and now18 months of funeral ministry and there is always something to learn, not just from texts, conversations and courses but from the ‘job’ itself. I have taken two funerals in the last 7 days which were hugely contrasting. 

Today’s funeral at Treswithian Downs Crematorium was packed with standing room only for a popular lady who had died of cancer over the Christmas period after a two year struggle. I was requested as minister as I had taken the funeral for her mother nine months ago and knew the family.  The funeral director sent me the details with the chosen music etc. and I arranged a visit to gather information. I arrived with time to pray for the family and to greet guests and it went very smoothly, and I was in my comfort zone, if a little nervous as always. Afterwards I spoke to the immediate family and then slipped away leaving the huge group of people to chat with each other.  Job done!

This was a far cry from the previous week which I count as the least satisfactory of all the funerals I have done when, being in my own church, it really should have been the opposite. 

The deceased  was a lovely, serene and faithful member of the  congregation until a combination of health issues and the infirmity of age took her to residential care, complicated in the last few years with the visiting problems around the Covid Pandemic.  I have an indelibly stamped image of her white hair and generous smile in the fifth pew from the front- so it was a huge privilege to be asked to do the funeral service.  I had been asked a year ago if I would do it when the time came.

I was reassured that it was to be an unfussy commemoration which suited me well and I prepared in my usual prompt meticulous  way agreeing everything with the family early on – even the words of the eulogy /address. The screen in church would have a slide show and pictures would be sent and reflective music was chosen and stored as MP3 files ready to use the church sound system

Now in hindsight I should have realised that it was going to be a tough one when the funeral directors, instead of sending me the letter of details as the person taking it, instead  sent to the PTO priest who had been added at the suggestion of the Funeral Director.  My name was a handwritten addition. It is no wonder we lay ministers feel somewhat second class but that’s Anglican life.  I should add at this point that I get on really well with the PTO priest and the funeral director -and they are lovely people,  but they have a huge (and daunting)  fund of knowledge and experience and  a different vision and style to me, so this  became an exercise in trying to incorporate everything and please everyone. 

Mostly, all was well and I knew what I was doing – until the changes began to be sprung upon me to make life more interesting. Isn’t,  “may you live in interesting times!”  an old curse?

As mentioned, the (retired) funeral director spoke to the family and suggested that they might like to include the PTO priest in the service and he in turn suggested they might like to have the chaplain from the care home as well so suddenly I had to apportion parts of the service to them.

  • PTO priest –tasked to lead the intercessions and so say some words of sending off at the hearse as it set off for the crematorium as there would be no service there.
  • The chaplain of the care home- I tasked with reading psalm 23 and a poem.
  • The ladies singing group – would be in the choir stalls and sing one of the hymns standing socially separated in the chancel.
  • The grandson who would perform an original song for his grandmother but would need an amplifier, microphone and assorted cables.
  • A slide show on the church screen of photographs, requiring my laptop and making sure the connection worked.
  • An organist to play the two hymns and some music beforehand.
  • A connection from the laptop to the sound system to play the MP£ files for entry and exit music…

So I went in early in the morning with the deceased son-in-law and set up the keyboard, the laptop and various other things.

I was not really prepared for questions such as “what do you want us to wear?” from our PTO… who normally has his own flamboyant style. I wanted to say, “Well that’s up to you” but instead we gave time to a discussion and I think he decided on a dalmatic, in the end.  I googled dalmatic to check and the range of images left me none the wiser but I was reassured by the words “not done up as a Christmas tree”  

As there were eleven in the family I had arranged for them to sit on chairs at the front of the church with the coffin where the nave altar usually stands so that it would be an intimate atmosphere however again there were complications. 

  • The PTO priest suggested to the family that there should be holy water and incense- so these were added to the ceremony with him swinging the thurible and the care home chaplain flicking holy water with a small evergreen branch!
  • The PTO priest asked if we should have the catafalque candles. In St Andrews there are half a dozen, three feet high and foot thick and have to be lifted with two hands. My answer as always was, “well if that is what the family want….. “  When finally positioned around the coffin they had the effect of making a barricade which was not really what I wanted and in effect prevented me from gathering the immediate family at the committal.
  • The funeral directors team took much persuasion, first by me and then by the church warden that they had no need to put out reserved notices because the family would occupy the seats…. It was a tad ‘jobsworth’, “well we have been told to reserve seven pews for family” with the added silent implication that that was what they were going to do whether we agreed or not as they laid out the reserved signs anyway.
  • Various of the Funeral Director’s team were also working behind the scene making decisions about where the coffin would come in and leave the church – which I had already agreed with the family. It would come in the main door and travel down the church to the nave for the service. After the committal we would leave by the side door in procession with the family because it was
    • a) near
    • b) meant I could have folks leaving through two exits (as is common sense for covid-tide)
    • c) there was a ramp rather than awkward granite steps which meant it was safer for all to negotiate! 

My usual prayerful pre service preparation was now in tatters.

My laptop which had had a recent Microsoft update had changed its power setting to going to sleep after 5 minutes even when plugged in… so every time the image on the screen turned to that dreadful blue projector light I had to go and wake it up again. 

At the hearse by the gate, one minute from beginning the service the funeral director asked, “so you have the music?”

I hadn’t! I had completely forgotten about it and the family had the cds which of course they had not brought.  It was somewhere on the laptop but I had no time to sort it out and no time to plug in another cable…..  so I nipped in, apologised to the family and told the organist to cover.  Bless him, he did!

Now you can imagine that by now my normal healthy pre service nervousness is a full-on adrenaline fuelled jitter which meant by the time I got to the eulogy I actually managed to leave a page out of the middle!  

I had announced in the address how we would be leaving the church, the order of the procession and that when everyone was outside our PTO priest would say a few words to begin the final journey   which would be the signal for the driver to set off down the road with the hearse – at which point we would all wave goodbye and call out of we wanted to.

  • Crucifer
  • PTO priest wielding thurible
  • Me
  • The coffin
  • The Chaplain with the 11 family members.
  • The ladies in the singing group
  • Everyone else to leave by the main door and stand on  the path outside or on the steps.

 In the event this idea was hijacked somewhat by the PTO priest who walked backwards down the road in front of the moving hearse intoning funeral liturgy.   By the time he had finished, the hearse turned the corner and vanished leaving no time for waving etc….. and the crowd slowly dispersed.  I was underwhelmed!

The danger here is to dwell too much on what went wrong rather than what went right and the pastoral welfare of those attending – after all it was not about me! 

None of the ‘stuff’ really mattered, (that was all the mad paddling of the swan’s feet below the surface) because it was a fitting, reflective and heart-felt commemoration of a wonderful lady in which everyone took part. I spoke to the family in church the Sunday after and commented that it was not quite what I had had in mind and nether was it in theirs but it worked out alright – the highlight being the grandson’s song which was brilliant.

So what did I learn?

  1. Don’t try to please everyone- focus on the family and stick to your guns.
  2. Never believe that I have got things under my control…..
  3. I prefer doing crematorium services where the format is much less flexible.
  4. If asked to do a Church service again I will be reluctant to have to manage a cast of others  so I think more communication with the family asking each time, for each change, “are you sure that is what you really want?”
  5. People have their own set ideas about what should and should not happen in services, especially the ‘professionals’ and managing them means going in with a clear set of objectives and a steely but quiet, polite assertiveness.

What are your best / worst funeral moments?

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