Generous Orthodoxy  




Saturday, June 30, 2012

Funerals, continued

The Rev. William (Billy) Shand, rector of St. Francis, Potomac, Maryland, writes effortlessly literate, witty, and wise letters (and profound, biblical sermons). He contributes these observations to the discussion of The Burial of the Dead, aka "memorial service" (edited only slightly):

 Your essay came to my attention this morning.... On so many points you are absolutely right, even though you – and I – are fighting a rear guard action. I have said repeatedly here we do not offer “memorial services” at St Francis; we offer the Burial of the Dead, which is the only thing (even) the current Prayer Book designates it....           
I recently attended a service [in which] the homilist got off on a very good start by sniffing at the term “celebration of life”, for he said we do not celebrate a complete life when we ignore illness, disappointment, and so forth, nor is it full in any sense if we do not get on to resurrection....
            Charlie Price (of Virginia Theological Seminary) said more than once that we should not ever miss the opportunity to preach at a funeral since one had a congregation not present even on Easter, many of whom would never hear a word of Resurrection otherwise. The balance I try to strike between that priority and the need to inject a personal touch is to ask myself this question as I am writing the sermon: What difference does the Resurrection make to the deceased? I confess I am not looking here for much language about redemption from sin; I think that is too broad a topic for the service involved and is open to far too much misunderstanding even in the hands of a preacher as skilled as you are. But the operative words for me in the entire service are found in Cranmer’s phrase “sure and certain hope.” The world does not modify “hope” with “sure and certain”, because the world takes “hope” as conditional, synonymous almost with optimism. So, again, when Billy or Fleming die, what makes our hope still sure and certain? What difference does the Resurrection make to us? This discipline means that every funeral sermon is unique and if nothing else not a collection of bromides appropriate to a Hallmark card....
            I must add one other confession to this. On one thing I have modified by view in the years I have been here. I do not object to one short set of “remarks” from a family member or a friend. Usually these are mundane and often dubious from a theological point (“I bet Billy is looking down on the Gamecocks right now… I bet Fleming is preaching inside the pearly gates to Phillips Brooks and Jonathan Edwards….”). But sometimes one hears a story that is enjoyable and does no violence to the theme of the service. The problem with these is that they are like children’s sermons on Sunday: I never compete with dogs or children, and some fatuous story told in a children’s sermon will delight a congregation and they don’t hear the real sermon of the day. Same with “family remarks” if not kept on a tight leash. And I also insist on having the last word, as it were..... And let me also quickly add that the best of all worlds, and the one I try to encourage, is that such remarks be made at a wake, by which I mean to include any social function after the service. When I have said the last amen, my responsibility is over, and they can do whatever they like for as long as they like.

To which I say AMEN. My own experience with both funerals and weddings is that the parish church will have no chance of keeping services within bounds unless there are prepared directions made public and applying to everyone. This is the only way to teach about the burial of the dead from the church, and the meaning of the marriage service, without getting into intolerable situations where the dead person's family, or the bride and groom, have already made up their minds what they want without reference to the pastoral and theological responsibilities of the liturgical leaders.