I had a funeral today. Rewind: pagans have funerals, Christians have “services of death and resurrection”. It was my second in as many weeks. (I’ve been a minister now for twenty-five years, and though I’m not superstitious, it is uncanny how they always seem to come in twos and threes.)
Stan was seventy-seven. He died of cancer, spending his last days in a hospice. I was asked to take his service because a few years ago I had taken the service of his teenaged grandson Steven, who had also died of cancer. At the service in the home with the immediate family, I reflected with them on “the illness we dare not name, like some swearword or evil incantation”, so as to draw its sting. At the crematorium I payed tribute to Stan in the context of a homily - not an “address”! - on the Christian hope. We gave thanks and we grieved - not the one without the other - no skipping Holy Saturday on the way to Easter Sunday, and an acknowledgement that we’ll always be revisiting yesterday - and the day before yesterday too.
And in the car on the way home, I thought: “To leave pastoral ministry - how I would miss this!”
Understand: I don’t mean to sound like the well-named Lt. Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, who (in)famously exclaimed, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” It’s rather that - at the risk of being equally misunderstood - in ministry the service of death and resurrection is the money-shot. It’s there that we show the devil what we’re made of, what we’ve got, whether our gospel can punch with the heaviest of heavyweights, death itself, with its cornermen irretrievable loss and unbearable grief. And it’s there that we experience the utterly humbling privilege of ministering not just to earthen vessels but to shattered clay pots.
But of course the real work has already been done - or not. Or haven’t you been to funerals that are just - funerals? Where they might have been burning a log for all the minister has said about the life of the dead. Where if that poem by Patience Strong is anything to go by, if it comes from minister, not the mourners, the empty holes in their souls have been covered with a shroud of clichÃ©s. “God always takes the best.” “These things are sent to try us.” “God moves in mysterious ways.” Better remain tongued-tied than open mouth, insert foot. Tell the truth at the right time, and, with Emily Dickinson, tell it “slant”, but spare us the platitudes. (I take it as read that manipulating emotions, let alone exploiting fears, is an odious abuse of ministerial vocation.)
For the death of those who have lived their allotted biblical three-score-and-ten (now more likely to be four-score-and-ten - my oldest so far was 104), and if the end has not been long and agonising, you might conscientously agree, “Yes, he’s had a good innings; we should be grateful.” But who knows what unfinished business - what anger, guilt, or bitterness - there might have been between the dead and the living to whom you minister - unless you’ve taken the time, anointed the hearts, guided the conversation, and been given the grace to find out? This is the most awesome time - the time you spend with the family after the call from the funeral director, particularly when they don’t know you from Adam. As a complete stranger you are invited into a home to talk and pray at this time of acute crisis, with people as wretched as they will ever be: “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief” (in the searing words of Gerard Manley Hopkins) -
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there…
And the Everests: after fifteen years of the Brecon Beacons suddenly I found myself in mourning parties scaling precipitous rockfaces: that teenager taken by cancer; another teenager, a girl, who took her own life; yet another teenager killed in a car crash; a soldier murdered by one of his own men in Afghanistan; a thirty-year-old member of my own church family, finally beaten by the cystic fibrosis; and the miscarriages - and to think they didn’t use to “count”, but to experience sudden death after the growing expectation of life… It doesn’t take Auschwitz to demonstrate the broken-backed theology, the blasphemy of theodicies. “Don’t worry, dear, you’re young enough to have another” - words spoke to my wife Angie by a retired minister’s wife when our Hannah was stillborn. How obtuse the sentiments and how repugnant the God too many Christians peddle like snake oil to the broken-hearted.
Reflections after a funeral. No conclusion. No closure. There is never closure. People don’t get over death, they get used to it. They rebuild - amidst the ruins. And, yes, how I would miss not being there, just carrying the hod, and passing the odd brick.