‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.’ Romans 12:15
Funeral visits can be awkward situations at the best of times. They are one of the few situations in life when a family group may allow a complete stranger in their midst, and perhaps open up to him their most personal hurts, their intimate sense of loss, and the reality of their familial dynamics. Because of this, each visit (even with the same family) is different from the next and it requires a good degree of spiritual preparation. Each visit is also an occasion for extending to the bereaved God’s love for them – not necessarily through words, but also through demonstrating genuine concern, attention, and care of details.
Only in a limited number of occasions one gets to visit faithful and committed Christians. In the vast majority of cases the bereaved have very, very little experience of the Church, little knowledge of the faith, and a few strongly held ideas of what “the vicar” should do, say, or look like. However, I do not think that lack of Christian commitment presents itself necessarily as a challenge; rather it is an encounter between God and people’s sufferings – only once, for example, I was asked by an angry relative of the deceased to ‘cut out’ the Lord’s Prayer and all that nonsense; but even there I do think that their request was an expression of grief and resentment towards a God they did not know (I did not accommodate their request). No, I do think that the more difficult problems that can arise during funeral visits straddle both side of the Christian/non-Christian divide. These issues spill over into the funeral rite itself.
As far as I can see, the three main problems with funeral visits are (a) lack of pastoral relationship with the bereaved and/or the deceased; (b) a vague expectation that the funeral rite would be only “mildly” religious; and (c) a creeping misunderstanding of what the faith teaches about death and "the last things".
Problem (a). This issue might be associated with densely populated areas but it is a feature of other ministry settings as well. The causes of this problem are many – not the least, the numerical decline of full-time parochial clergy. One cause however, directly linked to funeral planning is represented by the all-encompassing figure of the funeral director. Families (and sometimes clergy as well!) tend to rely too heavily on funeral directors even for liturgical and pastoral aspects of the service, de facto rendering the figure of the priest akin to any other professional wheeled in at the right time to perform a specific task – in short, the priest risks becoming another piece of the puzzle.
Problem (b). A “mildly” religious funeral service may come as a request from religious and non-religious families alike. The first group may be concerned about not embarrassing unchurched mourners, whilst the second group might be unwilling to endorse a religious (or metaphysical) system they do not believe in. The example about the Lord’s Prayer given above is a testimony to this. As other examples, Funeral Masses are ditched in favour of “simpler” services, and the dead are accompanied on their last journeys to the sound of regrettable music choices, rather than to the words of Scripture.
Problem (c). “She is my guardian angel; she’s in heaven with her husband looking down on us…” This hypothetical phrase reflects the sentiments and the beliefs of many bereaved. People may not be particularly religious, but they often have about sense of afterlife (even something simple but strongly held, built out of Sunday school teachings, love, and popular culture). This forms an important source of strength in the days surrounding the funeral. However, these beliefs can be a double-edged sword during visits for both Catholic and Evangelical clergy. The priest will need to pay utmost attention in listening to the family as they articulate their beliefs, without judging. Prayer, worship, and follow-up relations will offer occasions in which to outline the faith with all charity, but funeral visits are certainly not the best occasion to “confront” the bereaved.
All three of these problems cannot be solved within the context of the visit, but they can be addressed by the priest after the funeral. Follow-up visits, requiem services, or correspondence, can be occasions where the pastoral relation between the priest and the flock is reinstated, or established, outside the tight confines of planning for a funeral.
As a coda, I include the pattern I follow for gathering information about the deceased. Obviously, other questions and occasion for digressions on the life of the deceased will be prompted during this exercise. This outline provides only the essentials.
- Was the deceased Baptised? Confirmed?
- Was s/he actively involved in the church? (or other denomination?)
- Family members to do eulogy?
- Family members to write eulogy?
- Give a brief history including DoB, place of birth, parents, siblings.
- Where did s/he grow up? What was their childhood like?
- Where did s/he go to school?
- Did s/he marry? When and where? Children and grandchildren?
- Significant life accomplishments.
- Any professional and career accomplishments?
- Personal interests, hobbies, achievements.
- Character qualities, Christian service, and how s/he affected other lives.