The ministry of any priest goes through phases and different ministries demand different things of course. One of the particular parts of ministry that you very quickly become involved in when you are ordained is around funerals. I can well remember my first – though, sadly, not the name of the deceased. But I do distinctly remember the visit to see the widower. He clearly didn’t want to see me, couldn’t imagine why I had come round and gave nothing away about his wife who had just died. I never got over the threshold of his house and left feeling an absolute failure. Was this what funeral ministry was going to be like, I thought.
Fortuantely, that rather rocky beginning was not typical, though it did teach me that you never can tell what you will find when you take the call from the Funeral Director and go to see the family. That is why, whenever you gather clergy together and invite them to share stories of ministry, inevitably funeral stories will be told. I have my own share and of course it is the ones when things didn’t quite go as planned that stick in the mind!
I’ve been thinking all about this because since the beginning of the new year we seem to have been going through a period of deaths and funerals. Some have been members of the congregation, some have been family and friends, others have been members of other people’s families. Others are on the edge of the community but no less poignant.
I received this message yesterday morning and coming in this period when I seem to be surrounded by news of death it was particularly sad. It concerns Peter, one of the Zimbabwean artists whose work we sell in the Cathedral Shop. He has made some lovely quails which we recently sold. Well this was the news:
A bit of sad news this morning as artist Peter Kananji’s baby son, Peter, died last night. Peter had been so happy these past few days with a camera and sales money I sent last week and he was rushing around sending photos to send back via my courier leaving today and now this! Life is so cruel at times The family live in one room without any glass in the windows and no water or toilet facilities and this is 2014!
I don’t know any more, or why baby Peter died, but my heart goes out to the family and my prayers. One should never lose a child – but too many people in our world do. May baby Peter rest in peace and rise in glory.
On my way home on later that afternoon I bumped into a family from Swansea up in London for the weekend with their two children. They were just bumping the buggy down the steps from visiting the Globe. ‘Hello Father’ said the woman ‘You are a Catholic aren’t you?’. I knew what she meant so I said ‘I’m Church of England actually.’ But it made no difference to the conversation.
Later on the woman said to me ‘I believe in life after death and that God will judge us when we die.’ ‘So do I’ I responded, ‘but he will also reward us.’ That seemed like a bit of a surprise to this woman. ‘We’ve all done things that are wrong’ I went on ‘but I’m sure the good things that you have done will outweigh the bad when they are put into the balance.’ Her husband nodded – she didn’t look too convinced – but they went off to see the Cathedral when I told them it was open and they would be welcome to go in.
I hope she thinks about what I said because people have such bad ideas about death. There will be judgement but there will be reward and generous reward. I have to believe this as I stand there taking funerals as I have done so many times since Christmas (and Deans don’t often do many) and as I will do this week. I am commending the departed to the care of the God who loves them and desires them to be united in the divine presence with the one who is love and that is all reward.
Many people have the famous passage by Henry Scott Holland as part of their funeral. I don’t stop them as I know why they choose it – it is deeply consoling – but I wouldn’t necessarily choose it myself. The text is this
Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.
All is well.
It is beautiful and it is hopeful but I think that there is something dishonest about it.
The background to it is that while at St Paul’s Cathedral, Holland delivered a sermon in May 1910 following the death of King Edward VII, titled ‘Death the King of Terrors’, in which he explored the natural but seemingly contradictory responses people make to death: the fear of the unexplained and the belief in continuity. It is from his discussion of the latter that this ‘poem’ is drawn. It has long been controversial as many people do not think it accurately reflects his theolgy.
My own response is that death is not ‘nothing at all’, rather, it is the greatest ‘something’ that every one of us, every one of us without distinction, will encounter. To the family of baby Peter it must be devestating, to all of us it is momentous, life is never the same after it. Death may be a blessing to the person who has died but the pain is as real for Christians as it is for anyone else. We may see that there is life beyond death but for us who remain death is a real parting and gives us pain like nothing else. If it were not so why did Jesus cry openly and with such passion outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He was in deep grief and pain and, presumably, he knew what he was going to do. Death is a terror to those of us who remain as someone we love is taken from us.
In Mark 12 we hear Jesus talking to the Sadducees who denied the resurrection and at the end he says
‘He is God not of the dead, but of the living.’ (Mark 12.27)
What Jesus was saying is that we are all, eternally, in God’s hands, that the living and the dead are all alike, to the one who calls us from death to life. That for me is the hope in which I live and the hope in which I commend the dead to God and commit their earthly remains to their final resting place. It is an amazing ministry that we exercise when we do this – but then life and death are amazing and God is there in both, the Lord of life now, the Lord of life eternal.
A prayer from the Common Worship Funeral Service which we might pray.
you love everything you have made
and judge us with infinite mercy and justice.
We rejoice in your promises of pardon, joy and peace
to all those who love you.
In your mercy turn the darkness of death into the dawn of new life,
and the sorrow of parting into the joy of heaven;
through our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who died, rose again, and lives for evermore. Amen.