Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thinking about funerals (what funerals?)

An Episcopal clergyman told me recently that in his 6 years in office, he had never seen the pall used in his parish church. What does that mean? It means that the traditional Anglican funeral, with the coffin present and covered by the pall, has almost ceased to exist. How has this happened? The "new" (1979) Book of Common Prayer clearly calls for the body to be present in the church -- the rubrics (italicized instructions) assume it, with instructions such as "The coffin is to be closed before the service." There is even a special set of prayers to be said (p. 466) as the body is brought into the church to repose before the service.

What has happened in the 30+ intervening years to cause this to change so totally? We now have the ubiquitous memorial service, which as far as I know scarcely existed at all thirty years ago.

When my father, and then my mother, died (1986 and 2006, respectively) the closed coffin -- covered by the church's pall -- rested in the library at home for two days preceding the funeral. We had the prayers for the Vigil by the body (p. 465). When the time came, the pallbearers (who were family and friends) took the coffin out of the house and placed it in the hearse. Then after the service, we went up the street to the cemetery and had the Committal (p. 484). It was all incomparably comforting and consoling, especially as we knew it had been done that way for centuries. (At the same time, we knew that a few of the younger members of the family thought it was creepy and weird!)

Now I know that there are many reasons for the differences today. For one thing, cremation is taking over from traditional burial, and cost is a major consideration for many people in these days of rapacious mortuary practices. (Still, for families that can afford the extra expense, cremation can certainly take place after the funeral, and I always used to encourage that.)  Many people would not or could not have the body brought to the home (though the alternative would be to bring it to the church). In many cases, a cemetery is not nearby. Also, people have become accustomed to having a long wait between the death and the service, to allow more people time to make plans to attend.

However, there has been little or no discussion of all these changes. As in so many other aspects of church life, the ways of the culture have simply taken over. We have not defended our ancient traditions, or given sufficient reasons for them. I wonder, however, if there is not a significant body of opinion out there that remains unconverted. When Diana, Princess of Wales, died, I wrote an article for The Living Church lamenting the fact that 2 billion people had watched a service that had little or no similarity to the traditional Anglican service (to find that, you can look up the funeral program for the Queen Mother). I got more responses to that article (all positive) than any other article I have ever written, more than 75 in all. To be sure, however, that was 1997. Matters have deteriorated apace since then. (That article can be found at

Who decided that the service for The Burial of the Dead was going to be called "The Celebration of the Life of === ?" It just happened by osmosis, as far as I can tell. Was there ever any theological or liturgical discussion of this? Sometimes, people don't even say that they're going to a memorial service; they're going "to celebrate his (her) life." No more than twenty years ago the Presbyterian Church, at least in some places, called the funeral service "A service of witness to the Resurrection." That seems ideal to me. When did the focus of attention shift from the opportunity to proclaim the gospel to the opportunity to exchange "reflections"? I am asking these questions quite seriously; who decided these things, and why? I have been to services for suicides and for severely mentally ill people; the "reflections" ignored these unpleasant details and "celebrated" their unhappy lives, with a heavy dose of denial.

The precipitating incident for this blog post was a conversation I had recently with a woman who has been a very active Episcopalian for about thirty years. She had just returned from a Roman Catholic funeral Mass. She expressed great dissatisfaction with it. She said, with considerable disdain, that the service was all about the Mass. "There was hardly anything about the person." She corrected herself, saying, "Well, there were a couple of people who spoke, but most of the service was just liturgy." (She may not have used the word "liturgy" but that is what she meant.) She concluded, "It was so different from our Episcopal service, which is all about the person." I was really shocked -- though not surprised.

I admit that I would not want to go back to the way it was done for my grandmother in 1974, when the "old" service was used and her name was never mentioned. But there are a good many options in between that one and what we have today, which is almost entirely a free-for-all in a great many cases.

For many years I have tried to find a reliable reference to a funeral that was described to the members of the Wednesday Morning Bible Study group at Grace Church in New York City in 1989. A member came in, having heard about it, and because she knew that it would strike a note with us all, she described it to us. I lost track of the details, but last week, after 24 years, I finally found what I was looking for. The deceased person was Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, wife of Emperor Charles of Austria. As such, she was the last Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, and Queen of Bohemia--one of the last members of the storied House of Hapsburg. Her 1989 funeral was held in Vienna, from which she had been exiled most of her eventful life. After the service in St. Stephen's Cathedral, her body was taken to the Imperial Crypt of the Capuchin Church, where some 145 Habsburg royals are buried.

Here's the point. As the coffin was taken to the Crypt, an ancient ceremony took place. A herald knocked at the closed door, and a voice responded, "Who seeks entrance?" The herald answered, "Zita, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary." From within came the response, "I do not know this person." The herald tried again, saying, "This is Zita, Princess of Bourbon-Parma, Empress of Bohemia." The same reply was heard: "I do not know this person." The third time, the herald and pallbearers said, "Our sister Zita, a sinful mortal." The doors swung open.

Isn't there something to be learned here?

(Perhaps not incidentally, Zita, the "sinful mortal," has been beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in the Diocese of Le Mans, France. She had been in the habit of spending several months each year in the diocese of Le Mans at at St. Cecilia's Abbey, where three of her numerous sisters were nuns.)