A funeral marks the close of a human life on earth. It is the opportunity for friends and family to express their grief, to give thanks for the life which has now completed its journey in this world and to commend the person into God’s keeping.
As far back into history as we can penetrate, human beings seem to have felt the need for a ceremonial leave-taking of those who have died.
A funeral service in the Church of England – whether in a parish church or a crematorium chapel – may be very short and quiet with only a few members of the family present, or an occasion of great solemnity with music, hymns and a packed church. A funeral may also be set within a celebration of Holy Communion.
Whatever the pattern of service, the words and actions all speak of a loving God and the preciousness to him of every human being.
Questions of life and death
The funeral service will reflect the personality of the one who has died and the circumstances of their death. Feelings of grief, gratitude, joy and sadness often intermingle.
Sometimes, a sense of tragedy is uppermost, especially when it is a young person who has died. When it is the end of a long and fruitful life, the feelings of thanksgiving can be strongest.
There are times when the death of a faithful Christian seems to be the consummation of all they have lived for and the funeral service is a triumphal departure for their true home. As for Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, ‘all the trumpets sound for them on the other side’.
Funeral services always raise profound questions about the meaning of life and death. Jesus himself believed in a life-giving God: ‘the God of the living, not of the dead.’ Christians believe that Christ’s resurrection is the triumph of good over evil and of life over death and has made eternal life available to us.
The funeral service
The Church of England has three authorized funeral services:
- The service from the Book of Common Prayer (1662), in 17th century English
- The ‘Series One’ Alternative Service (1966), also in traditional language
- The service from Common Worship (2000), in contemporary language
The service usually begins with the priest or minister reading aloud some reassuring sentences from the Bible, such as:
‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ saith the Lord; ‘he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die,’ John 1.25-26
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’ Matthew 5.4
Near the start of the service there is an opportunity for someone who has known well the person who has died to say a few words about them – a tribute.
A Psalm – often The Lord is my shepherd – may follow. This, together with readings from the Bible tell of God’s care and of the hope of eternal life.
This is followed by an address or a sermon by the minister in which he or she speaks about the great Christian beliefs about life beyond death. Such words can be a source of great comfort and strength to the mourners.
Prayers then recall the promise of the resurrection, and ask for comfort and strength for those who mourn.
There then follows a Commendation, in which the person who has died is entrusted to God’s love
The funeral service ends with the Committal – a particularly solemn moment. This takes place either at the graveside or, in the case of a cremation, in the crematorium chapel or in church before the hearse leaves for the crematorium.
In the cemetery or churchyard, the family will gather round the open grave into which the coffin is lowered and they will hear the words:
We therefore commit his / her body to the ground;
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.
Handfuls of earth are then scattered on the coffin.
At a crematorium, the words of committal are normally accompanied by the closing of a curtain to hide the coffin from.view.
The committal can be a very emotional moment. Many who are suffering grief find that, even in their sadness, the words of prayer can lift them towards the experience of Christian rejoicing in the knowledge of life beyond death.
The offering of prayer and the trust that the person is in God’s safe hands can begin the process of healing the grief of loss.
Arranging a funeral
The person who has died might have left a paragraph in their Will describing the sort of funeral arrangements they hoped for. Naturally, the family will want to keep to such arrangements as far as possible.
Not everyone knows that they have the right to a funeral in their parish church even if they have not been church-goers. Nor do practising Christians always realise that they can have a Communion service as part of the funeral.
Parish clergy regard the taking of funerals as an important part of their work. They give a lot of time to visiting families, comforting those who are facing loss, finding out what service they want to use and helping them to arrange it.
If a local minister is to be asked to take the service, this should be done before any other funeral arrangements are made to make sure one is free and available. If the minister did not know the person who has died, then it would help to provide some details.
The funeral director plays a very important part in all these arrangements and will want to know if the funeral is to be in the parish church or if the minister is to take the service in the crematorium. Funeral directors know the local ministers, the local cemeteries and the crematoria. As part of a national network of funeral directors, they can, if necessary, give advice on funerals in other parts of the country, as well as on costs and fees.
Burials and cremations
In many country parishes, the churchyard is still open for burials and the parish clergy are able to advise on suitable memorials. In most towns, burials now take place in the local cemetery and the funeral director can advise. If the churchyard is still open for burials, the person who has died may be buried there if they lived or died in the parish, whether or not they regularly attended church.
These days, six out of ten funerals make use of the crematorium. This leaves the question of what is to be done with the ashes. Crematoria have gardens of rest where they can be buried and many churchyards have a special place set aside for burying ashes even when there is no space left for graves.
When this burial takes place, usually a few days after the funeral, a further very brief service can be held if the family wish it and some suitable commemorative mark or record may be made.
After the funeral
People who have lost someone close to them are often so busy with practical details and arrangements between the death and the funeral that they do not experience the full sense of their loss until later.
Grieving is a natural and important part of coming to terms with and healing this loss and it may continue for several months. The local church is there to help with support after a funeral. Please speak to your minister. Sometimes it is those who have suffered a close bereavement themselves, clergy or lay people, who can most easily offer comfort and support to those who mourn.
Comfort is also to be found in the promises of Jesus Christ, in the hope of the Resurrection and in the belief that the beloved person is safe in the hands of God.