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From the April, 2001 issue of Touchstone


Death, Where Is Thy Dignity? by Robbie Low

Death, Where Is Thy Dignity?

Robbie Low on Pastoral Rigor Mortis

My wife always says that if she were a bishop (she is, I should make clear, the editor of a magazine founded in opposition to such things), her first move would be to spend a week, sitting anonymously, at the back of the chapel of the local crematorium. This, she believes, would, at a stroke, tell her more about her clergy than almost anything else.

There she would learn several things in a very short space of time:

• Has this priest done his homework? Has he spent time with these people so that he has some hope of leading their hearts in worship?

• Does he make any connection with them before, during, or after the service?

• Does he understand how great an opportunity for evangelism his pastoral office is?

• Does he preach the gospel to these people in their hour of need? What does he actually believe?

• Is he using anything that approximates an order of service known to any church in Christendom?

• After half an hour of his ministrations, are these people more or less likely to believe in God or come to church even twice a year?

There are other questions, but these will do to begin with. And they are important because, for most priests, these services will be the only time in their ministry when they have the undivided attention of those who never come to church: the lapsed, the agnostic, the atheist, the worshipers of other faiths, the curious, those who have never heard the gospel, and so on.

Since the Protestant churches of Western Europe permitted and even encouraged the pagan practice of cremation, the priest has had to do this most difficult and rewarding task on alien territory—soulless cemetery “chapels”—on a conveyor belt and against the clock. Nevertheless, his commitment to this task is instructive, and my wife is right, as in so many things, to begin her episcopate in this way.

So let me take you to the wholly imaginary county of Bertfordshire and the all-too-likely setting of North Bert’s crematorium chapel. What might you encounter in an average day?

What You Will Find

There is the priest who never visits the families of the deceased and who completes the formalities in under eight minutes, on average, staring fixedly at a spot on the gallery wall well above the gaze of the less-than-thrilled congregation.

There is the priest who has trouble with names—there are always a few bets on the side among the less reverent undertaking staff as to whether he will, at the vital moment, actually commit the person in the box or instead a total stranger.

Pause for a moment in the West Chapel to meet the woman priest in a green shirt and floral stole (and handbag) who gives a moving account of childbirth in order to draw parallels with death. It is not wholly awry but ends up more as an apologia for reincarnation than the Resurrection.

Following her is the senior priest who always begins his 14-minute funeral service thus: “You all have in your mind a picture of X [the deceased]. That is your picture and I’m not going to say anything about X because you know him.” Roughly translated, this means: “I know nothing about the deceased and have not made the slightest effort to find out.”

He continues, “I’m going to read something.” This will almost certainly not be Scripture. It will probably be something like old Henry Scott Holland’s hideous lie, “Death is nothing at all.”

The service then continues with a hymn—usually a solo and usually poor. Then we go back to the “liturgy.” Our senior priest announces: “I’m not intending to lead this time. Please don’t feel I’m imposing on you. I am non-directive here. I’m just going to say a little prayer, but don’t feel that you have to join in.” And so on.

All Too Typical

There is a brief respite when we get to the man from a neighboring town who always gives Jesus a favorable mention. It is clear that no one thinks any the worse of him for that. And now back to familiar territory.

A young male curate, who has clearly been let loose without the slightest training, is trying really hard, but confusing dampness and emotional angst with compassion. He comes within hailing distance of mentioning the Risen Lord but then stalls and panics at the prospect of such unseemly commitment.

We move outside to the aftermath of another funeral led by a woman priest. She is standing well away from the mourners and engaging the organist in conversation. “You probably noticed that I didn’t say anything about what happens next,” she confides (she means after death, not after the burial).

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I did,” replies the organist.

“Well,” trumps the plain-speaking priest, “that’s because we don’t know, do we?”

She is curate to a priest who regularly talks about Jesus “understanding our difficulties and making the same mistakes.” Here is a sinful Christ fully in solidarity with Adam but not much use as a savior. It is scarcely surprising that this trainee should feel unable to compromise an honorable agnosticism by mentioning the hope of the Resurrection.

All is not lost, however. The day is brightened by two clergy. One man, an elf-like retired priest who, although his surplice looks like it has doubled as a pocket handkerchief for a fortnight, has clearly done his homework, knows the people, and speaks gently to God in prayer for them and to them expounds the gospel.

The other is an immaculately suited Catholic priest look-alike who turns out to be a Free Church minister who does the best pastoral work and Christian funerals in the area. (Sorry, he is not looking to transfer to what he perceives to be a biblically disobedient Church.)

The day finishes with a young male priest who gets the family to write personal notes for him to read out. This is a dangerous tactic and so it proves today. The minister finds himself wallowing in execrable prose describing a life that has been, to all intents and purposes, a complete waste of time. The most memorable moment proceeds thus:

“You know, Fred’s great passion in life was his daily newspaper. He would get it every day and read it cover to cover! Because, as he would say” (suitable pause for quintessence of Fred’s philosophy and life strategy), “if you’re going to buy a paper you might as well read it!”

Amen, brother!

As you probably gather, the crematorium may be fictional, but sadly, the examples are not. They are neither the best nor the worst of what happens, but all too typical. When I showed the above copy to undertaker friends, both Christians, they offered to furnish me with far more horrific examples.

Common Faults

With the exception of the two bright spots, can we discern any common faults?

It is clear that many clergy are uncomfortable outside their safe havens: church buildings. They are not good at preaching in the marketplace or relating to people outside the confines of the institution.

Preparing a good funeral requires prayer, time, heart, and listening ears. There are no shortcuts, and too much clerical work in this area is either ill-disciplined or, in the worst cases, almost wholly absent.

There is a worrying lack of confidence in what we are about. Many funerals are characterized by a mixture of timidity and embarrassment about the gospel. This is disastrous. If you asked a plumber to come in and mend your tap, you would not expect him to make pleasant conversation, read some poetry, announce that he was being “non-directive here,” and leave the washer leaking.

People come to a funeral to be led in worship, mourning, thanksgiving, and prayer, and to be given or reminded of the gospel hope—for them as well as for the deceased. When they receive it, even the hard-bitten nonbelievers are grateful. When they do not receive it, they feel betrayed and abandoned. Too many funerals have ceased to provide this basic service and have transmogrified into that much-to-be-avoided sentimental genre, the memorial service.

It becomes a belief-free zone where a religious building is rented to glorify a human being rather than God and sometimes to applaud the family’s musical taste. The preachment that, while giving thanks to God for the life now returned to him, should be about him upon whom our life depends, is too often a badly written obituary notice for the deceased and, by implication and default, for God, too.

I hope to God that when my time comes, the service will not be conducted by some fool bleating on about what a lovely man I was. (Friends assure me this is unlikely.) Give me a decent Requiem and plead the Cross of Christ for another sinful wretch utterly dependent on his mercy.

Burying Sinners

And that’s another thing—the prayers. Why is there no mention of sin? I have never buried anyone who wasn’t a sinner. How can I not mention the soul’s greatest need when leading prayer?

I have only once had someone tell me his loved one was not a sinner. In committing the soul of a middle-aged man’s very elderly mother, at her deathbed, I spoke of sin, forgiveness, and the Blood of Christ. Afterwards he very gently chided me. “Vicar, my mother never committed a sin in her life.”

Knowing how much she had done for him in terrible circumstances in his early years I understood his difficulty. I also knew that she had been an absolute tartar over the last 20-odd years while he had cared for her. He had once, not entirely humorously, asked me if I would like to take her to the vet. Still, death makes sentimentalists of us all.

A week later at the funeral I prayed unchanged, and his mixture of filial guilt and loyalty had reconnected with reality. Much of the wake was spent in therapeutic and often hysterical accounts of his mother’s outrageous behavior.

If the priest gets sucked into giving a eulogy, he will be exposed as a fraud. God knows what the dead man is like, and the congregation knows what he was like. If you recite a hagiography, the only person you will be fooling is yourself.

The acknowledgement of the deceased’s status as a sinner does not need to be wreathed in Presbyterian gloom. The mourners are there, usually, because of our love for this particular sinner, and we speak affectionately and realistically about him in prayer, knowing that our affection and realism, however great, cannot match that of the Almighty. “For God so loved the world. . . .”

We are there to look for God’s mercy for ourselves and for the departed and for the reconciliation that, in Christ, transcends the borders of life and death. Only when we preach and pray with conviction about these matters are we of any assistance to the mourners or to the deceased.

Much of what passes for worship at the crematorium springs from a lack of confidence or even from clerical agnosticism. It is more apology than apologia.

It is for this reason that we seem only too happy to collude with that spiritualistic fantasy world where granddad, no matter how appalling he may have been in life, is now cheerfully sunning himself on a cloud or enjoying a slightly extended holiday. Any mention of the Judgment or eternity would break up that fantasy and lead to the question of what we really believe happens next.

The Lack of Liturgy

Such evasion is made possible by the order of service, or rather the lack of it. In even the best of these services, any sense of liturgical purpose, form, structure, or direction is undetectable.

It is scarcely surprising then that, after years of experiencing this sort of chaos and the unhappy results of it, many laity turn up armed with their own program of events. This will routinely include excruciating poetry, a favorite pop song as an aid to meditation, and a glowing family tribute.

This latter will, it is proposed, be given by a particularly strong family member or prepared for you by the most literate of the mourners. Either of these is full of booby traps, especially if the one who died came from a broken home and left “unfinished business.”

When, on the other hand, the mourners discover that there is actually an order, a purpose, a task in the liturgy, which the priest is happy to personalize but not subvert or destroy, they are at first incredulous and then relieved. They were not to know any better, of course, as the defining moment of the Anglican funeral, Princess Diana’s service, told them the opposite. There they were treated to a kind of “today’s top hits” with all of the problems outlined above.

A supreme opportunity to preach to the nation and pastor the people was declined. (Was there really no priest in the realm who could have taken on this task?) We endured solemn family ax-grinding and various celebrity spots with prayers for the departed by a man (the archbishop of Canterbury) who doesn’t believe in praying for the departed and who, only recently, had told all clergy to drop Diana from the prayer list while she was alive.

The music, most of it, was lovely, but whatever the event was, it wasn’t a funeral service. The princess got that, if anywhere, at the Requiem at Westminster Cathedral or in the private Requiem that was rumored to have been celebrated, at the family’s request, by the bishop of London. Diana’s funeral didn’t start the rot, it merely gave the chaos an official rubber stamp.

The ordinary parish priest doesn’t have the glorious music to hide behind at the crematorium, to disguise the bankruptcy of invented liturgies or hide his own doubts. The proper and confident use of strong liturgy, as most priests have cause to know and all congregations should have cause to give thanks, will more than compensate for the inadequacies in the celebrant’s energy or creativity on any particular day.

It will also, unsurprisingly, strengthen his faith and help him pastor his flock. And because the liturgy is primarily the Word of God, it will, in the mouth of a believer, catch fire and leap the gap between the priest and countless unknown mourners, and lead them into the presence of the One whose work is their salvation.  

The Reverend Robbie Low is vicar of St. Peter’s parish in Bushey Heath, Hertfordshire, England. He is a member of the editorial board of the magazine New Directions, in which a version of this article first appeared.

“Death, Where Is Thy Dignity?” first appeared in the April 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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