There is an important relationship between clergy and undertakers. When I was ordained all those years ago curates could expect to take funerals every week, sometimes as many as four or five a week. It was a great introduction to pastoral ministry, to leading liturgy and to preaching. It’s sad that over the years the number of funerals that come in the direction of many clergy has reduced. I would love to do some research on why and what it was that began to diminish this area of pastoral ministry. Was it the introduction of the answerphone I wonder, messages being left that we never responded to? Was it clergy emerging from college and course with a model of ministry that didn’t include those who lived in the parish but didn’t come to church? Was it the reduction in the number of clergy that meant we simply couldn’t do it any longer? It may, of course, be nothing to do with the clergy, nothing that can be laid at our feet in terms of blame, but a change in society that was rapidly separating non-churchgoers from the language of faith – and non-religious funeral officiants came up with another and more accessible language.
I remember my first funeral visit. The vicar had shown me what to do when I was shadowing him following my ordination. And then, my first funeral came in. I went round to the house to meet the widower and find out a bit about his wife and what he wanted in the funeral service at the local crematorium. I rang the doorbell and the door opened. The man on the other side of the door looked less than pleased to see me. He didn’t immediately ask me in and when he did he told me he didn’t know why I’d come round and hadn’t anything to tell me. As I left, feeling a failure, I wondered if this was actually typical of such visits. Thank God, it wasn’t!
However, over the years you build up a relationship with your local funeral directors – the long established family firm, the Co-op, a firm bought up by a larger conglomerate. It doesn’t really matter who the firm is, you quickly get to know them and especially if they give you a lift to wherever the service is happening. Sitting there in the front of one of the cars chatting to the driver you get to learn a lot about the funeral business.
But last week I had a first-time experience. There is a well known family firm of funeral directors in Bermondsey, just down the road from the Cathedral. They became nationally known because they have worked with the MoD in repatriating bodies of servicemen and women killed overseas. The father of the firm was Barry Albin-Dyer, a great character in the area and a brilliant funeral director. You could rely on Barry for sheer professionalism. Whether it was a traditional east end funeral with plumed horses, whether it was a big affair or something very small and simple, the attention to detail was always the same. Sadly Barry died this year and he is very much missed. But his sons are carrying on his work.
My new experience however was to be invited to their annual Christmas Memorial Service which they organise and host. On a relatively warm and, thankfully, dry December evening I arrived at their main office in Rotherhithe alongside which is a small cemetery. It had been decked out with 750 chairs, with massive screens, a stage and a giant tree dressed in green lights. I wasn’t the only priest to be invited, they had asked all those clergy they work with to be there. When we finally processed out the seats were all taken and people were standing. There must have been almost 1000 people there.
It was a real Bermondsey crowd, very local, and all had been touched by the loss of someone they love. They were each bringing a star on which they had written the name of their loved one and within the service the stars were collected and hung on the great tree. There were readings and poems, a song from ‘Phantom of the Opera’, some carols, some prayers and a blessing – one in Norwegian – there’s a Norwegian graveyard there, it being opposite the Norwegian church in London – and the final one, which I gave.
What was so amazing was the attention that people paid for the hour the service took, many of them standing, many very emotional, all engaged in what was happening. It made me think a great deal this week. The liturgy was nothing like we would have put together, I’d never have thought of doing remembrance in December (but then of course that’s when people miss someone whose died) and I would have tried to make the event much more sophisticated. It was like a Fresh Expression of church and beyond the church. It used a language that people could understand and it was deeply moving and appreciated.
I was reminded of a carol that Sydney Carter wrote
Every star shall sing a carol;
Every creature, high or low,
Come and praise the King of heaven
By whatever name you know.
God above, Man below,
Holy is the name I know.
The language that was used was about stars and that was the great symbolism. So before the blessing that I gave I spoke a little about stars, about the way in which all matter and energy has already been created and how, perhaps, some of the earth that God took to make Adam was stardust. At the back of my mind was the star that became the symbol for where God was to be found, under the star, where the guiding star came to rest. It was a new language for me, a renewed symbol for me and it was a privilege to be there. There’s a great deal to learn about how we speak of the things of the faith to the people of this generation, people who are ready and eager to hear.
Let your star guide us to your Son,
Lord God, creator of stars
and creator of me,
and in the starlight
reveal yourself to those
who are eager to know you.