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Solving the funeral dilemma

The Reverend Peter Ratcliff, Minister, St John's Church of England (Continuing), South Wimbledon and editor of the English Churchmanrepudiates the increasingly common ‘Princess Diana style’ funeral which mixes religious and secular elements.

He argues that the minister should not allow the family to present poems and eulogies but make the congregation understand the religious nature of the service.


"The modern mood does not rest easily with a traditional 1662 Church of England Book of Common Prayer funeral service, The Burial of The Dead.

However this is a challenge, not an excuse to dumb down funeral services. Today people want everything to be light and jolly whereas the service is solemn and yet uniquely comforting.

The problem is not that there is anything wrong with the service but that most people live without giving any meaningful recognition to God Himself.

More articles on religious funerals can be found in the Religious Funerals section of the Advice area

People want happy memories but seem unaware of the fact that a loved one has been taken to meet God as their judge, and that one day we will all have to do likewise.

However, in arranging a funeral, while people do not know what to do, the hopeless idea of a godless eternity leaves them wanting to have a service that is in some way authorised by the church.

The challenge for the Christian minister is to be sympathetic to the congregation while faithful to God. The problem is that the congregation is often quite ignorant of the Bible's amazing teaching regarding life and death.

Kind words 

The problem of how to resolve the perceived incompatibility between the most solemn service and the lack of spiritual understanding of a large part of the congregation comes through prayer and preaching.

A few kind words of introduction will make the congregation realise that despite the solemn and sad situation they are in, the minister loves them and desires the very best for them.

To ensure the congregation understands this, the minister should take the whole service himself without allowing family and friends to present poems and eulogies.

It is his job and he should not stand down from his duty or hand it over to those who are not qualified.

The service is predominantly the worship of God and so needs to be led by a minister of God.

It is quite inappropriate to produce a 'Princess Diana' style modern funeral where the minister acts as a Master of Ceremonies, simply introducing one act after another.

Though often not intended, this becomes little better than an entertainment show and an outpouring of emotionalism devoid of biblical truth.

We all know the grief and sadness felt by the congregation and that is not to be belittled in any way. Of course it is right to cry.

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However we do not need to express this through family members having to read poems and give speeches during the service. We merely turn to tears if we try to express this.

What is most important and helpful at a funeral is to hear the amazing things that God says. If members of the family feel they must address everybody, they can do that at the reception after the service.

Importance of preaching 

It is important to have some preaching, even if brief, as this is where the minister explains the Word of God, which is the way in which God brings understanding and comfort to the congregation.

This includes not only the daunting fact that we are all guilty sinners who must meet God as our judge, but also the fact that God has provided an absolutely sure way of being saved from our sins through the one Lord Jesus Christ who died to save all that turn to Him to save them.

The preaching will refer to the deceased but it must not flatter them. This is important as we are to give thanks for their lives but we do this by giving this thanks to God who is the giver of all things.

Take care with music and singing

If the congregation are not singers then a choice of well known Psalms such as The Lord's My Shepherd (Psalm 23) or hymns (Amazing Grace, Abide with Me, All Things Bright and Beautiful etc) is important.

However there is no absolute need to sing if most of the congregation are not going to be able to sing. It is better not to sing at all than to have inappropriate songs or music.

Advice on farewell music

Great care must be taken if an organist is to be hired. Some of them are more like music hall entertainers and can spoil the atmosphere.

Make sure an organist understands how to play reverently and sensitively. It may be possible that a few strong singers can lead Psalm 23 and a hymn such as Amazing Grace without musical accompaniment and that will sound far better than being distracted by a jazzy organ. Two hymns should be quite sufficient especially if the congregation are not singers.

Best to encourage burial rather than cremation 

There is no need to adapt the 1662 Prayer Book Service except by slightly abbreviating the long readings if the service is only 25 minutes in a cemetery or crematorium chapel.

With a cremation it is best simply to use the Burial Service and treat the cremation as something that happens after the service. In that way there is no need to alter the words.

Nevertheless it is best to encourage people to have a burial rather than a cremation as the language of being buried and raised with Christ is so beautifully illustrated at the grave and this leaves a lasting impression of a wonderful and sure hope.

A service taken in this way will be based on the solid truth of God's Word and provide the comfort that cannot be provided by the mere outpouring of emotion at a 'Princess Diana' style funeral.

This approach spares families the embarrassment of being expected to stand and swell up with emotion and tears. It does more good than putting on a show and families have only expressed sincere gratitude afterwards.

Most ministers are not highly paid and some are quite poor. It is quite legitimate to accept the fee that is set for ministers for the work of arranging and taking the service.

However, at St John's, we prefer to refuse the fee and offer our ministry without charge. We feel that this gives a better impression at a time when we are so much wanting to express our sympathy and love."

Note from My Last Song: If you agree with Reverend Ratcliff's view and want your funeral to be soley conducted by a minister of God, make this a specific funeral instruction, placed in the funeral wishes section of your Lifebox.

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Jonathan Shepherd wrote on 19 Nov 10 at 5:19pm
Jonathan Shepherd

I find this a bit unsympathetic - many Christians would not use the Book of Common Prayer as they do not belong to the Church of England. For those that do, time has moved on since 1662 which in Christian terms is not long ago and before then what practicces existed? Were there "wakes" for example? To summarise and to be blunt this strict view seems a little unchristian to me when the family and friends of the deceased are in the process of bereavement and should be free to grieve in whatever way they find helpful.

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