It might sound a funny thing to say, but I find it a great privilege to be asked to take someone’s funeral. Of course, some funerals are intensely difficult; the funeral of a young child or someone who has died in tragic circumstances, while some can be painfully awkward, where there seems little good to say about the deceased or the family is divided into warring factions. But no matter what the circumstances, I find it a great privilege to be asked to step in at the point of greatest need, and for this reason I have always taken my funeral ministry very seriously.
Nowadays the number of funerals that I am asked to take is far less than even a few years ago. This is because by and large funeral directors tend not to ask the local clergy as their first port of call. There are certain individuals who offer cut-price funerals and earn their living by doing so, irrespective of whether they are accredited by a denomination or have any real pastoral qualifications. In some places it may even be the funeral director himself who offers to take the service. So if a funeral does in fact come my way, I feel I have to show the difference that having a properly authorised minister makes: namely, that I am not taking the service to earn a fee or as part of a care package, but rather I am there to bring those gathered in mourning to Jesus and to bring Jesus to them.
This is a privilege and it is also a responsibility.
First of all, I try to find out as much about the deceased as possible to piece together the story of what may to others seem a very ordinary life, but which by definition must have been unique. There is nothing worse than going to a funeral which seems to be part of a production line, where it could have been anyone really who died, and often they are called by a name they never in fact used of themselves.
Secondly, I try to get the details of that life right. I always remember going to the funeral of my great-aunt, long before I became a vicar. It was held in the church that her family had seen being built in Victorian times. The minister stood up and said this was the church she had attended all her life. Quite correct. He then said this was the church where she was married. No, she had remained a spinster of the parish all her life. I can’t actually remember anything else of that service, because this one error clouded over everything else he might then have said.
Thirdly, I try to be honest about the Christian faith. I have no difficulty in commending the deceased to the Lord, because the Lord will have mercy on who He will have mercy, and we should all pray for the Lord to show mercy and grace. But unless I know that he or she was walking with the Lord, I never make the claim that he or she is now with Jesus. I simply do not know. That’s why I change the prayer of committal from in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ to in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life for those who believe and trust in our Lord Jesus Christ. Because my ultimate goal is make sure that those who leave the service know the difference that believing in Jesus makes. For this reason I begin every service with John 11:25-26 (without the final question!) and John 3:16. Not that I am trying to aggressively challenge anyone, but because I believe there can be no greater comfort anyone can receive than finding the love and life of Jesus Christ for themselves. To put it very simply: God has promised and God can be trusted.