Taking a funeral is one of the hardest things I do. Having two in one day on Tuesday all but wiped me out for the rest of the week.
It starts with a phone call from the undertakers - we have some very good ones in Yeovil, and it's no reflection on them that my heart sinks every time they ring up. Taking someone's funeral is an immense privilege, but I'd be lying if I said it was my favourite part of being a vicar. A few details down the phone, then you ring the family to arrange to meet up. Having to ring someone you've never met, out of the blue, to express condolence and to fix a meeting normally means I put the call off for a day. I'd be hopeless in telesales, ringing people up isn't something I find very easy, never mind judging exactly what to say.
Then we meet, and most of the time is spent scribbling down notes - often folk launch into their summary of the deceased persons life before you've even sat down, and it's vital to capture all of those words. I always breathe a sigh of relief if someone from the family offers to give the tribute, because if they don't then it's my job to stand up and tell the life story - usually a story of a person I've never known or met. Normally in the funeral service I'm very up front with the fact that I didn't know the person, and that I'm not going to pretend that I knew them.
At one funeral, of the youngest of 6 brothers, each of the other 5 had written down their own words for the vicar to say, and my job was to edit all 5 accounts together and deliver the tribute. They bought me a pint afterwards, so it must have gone okay. I try to use the words that mourners themselves use, rather than try to read between the lines - this isn't a time for guessing games.
At the funeral visit you're trying to gauge mood as well: emotions can range all over the place. Family splits come to the surface, and the occasional skeleton emerges from the closet. If everyone knows that the dead person was an absolute scumbag, who beat his children and swore at his neighbours, then you've got to acknowledge that somehow, without starting the funeral service with "we're here to remember John, who, as you all know, was an absolute scumbag...."
There's a whole mix of emotions: grief, relief, numbness, anger, exhilaration, guilt, you name it. And for the bereaved, questions. Did we do enough for them? Were we there at the moment of death? Is it ok to feel relieved that they're not suffering any more? Is it ok to feel relieved that we don't have to look after them 24/7 any more? And for the vicar, how do you reassure people truthfully when you don't really know the circumstances?
The funeral service is normally booked into a 30 minute slot at the crematorium. That actually means 20 minutes for the service itself. One of the first ones I took had so many mourners that we were still filling the building 10 minutes after the start time. Crem staff can get a bit twitchy, one former employee came into a service a few years ago and told them to get a move on as they were running late: that's why he's a former employee! Especially after it was picked up by a national newspaper....
There's normally both laughter and tears at a 'good' funeral - both are ways of releasing grief, and the incredible pressure and weight that can build up. Funny stories are great. It's a fine line - you want to celebrate the good things in someone's life, as well as recognise the deep grief and loss that people are feeling. Being remorselessly downbeat isn't helpful, being chirpy isn't helpful either.
There are some standard Bible readings for funerals, but where possible I try to find something new, which linked to the persons life: for a man who had worked on trawlers at Grimsby, we had an encounter between Jesus and Peter the fisherman. If folk have asked for a vicar, and a Christian funeral, then I want to set everything in the context of the Christian faith. Old, familiar words (Psalm 23, the Lords Prayer) often help, but also how you say them. Sometimes it feels like you're having faith and hope on behalf of other people who haven't got them, but need someone to have more faith than they do.
Over the years I've become more challenging - trying to pick out the things in the deceased's life that folk can be inspired by, trying to give some sense of hope or direction for the future. For many people a funeral reminds them of their own mortality, how long they might have left (especially at an untimely death), and how they're going to be remembered.
What are people going to say about you at your funeral? Alfred Nobel was one of the few who got to find out. He was surprised, to say the least, to read his own obituary in the paper one day. Even more shocking was the content: it described him as a 'merchant of death', who, by his invention of dynamite, had 'become rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.' Nobel decided this wasn't the legacy he wanted to leave, and changed his will to endow the Nobel Peace prizes.
The service is a threshold, a final farewell, a marker post in the grief journey, and if you botch it then you can really mess people up. I'm all for children being in the service if they want to come - kids who are kept away when they wanted to be there will often feel a strong sense of unfinished business. And it's over in no time, people are filing out, shaking hands, looking at the messages on the flowers, wondering quite what to say to each other. And for the vicar it's back to the little office to take off your robes, pack everything away, and head off to the next thing. My journey home on Tuesday morning took me via the parent and toddler group - from one end of life to the other in 5 minutes.
This is a cross-post from Touching Base, a weekly column hosted by the Wardman Wire. And thanks to the Britblog Roundup for linking here.