When I was first ordained, the most scary thing of all about parish ministry was the prospect of having to take funeral services. I had been to quite a few by then - big family in the grandparents' generation - and had seen them done well, and seen them done badly. Your biggest dread was doing them badly. And then finally you have to go solo, and as it happens my first was not an easy one at all. The old lady was a cantankerous old bag. It was a miracle her niece and great-nephew had put with her to the end. I said so. They relaxed. But I discovered there was a reason why the iron had entered her soul - a life with much loss, including a daughter she was forced to give up. It was a world I knew from ear-wigging on family tales, and whilst I sympathised with the people in the front row before me, I sympathised too with the lady whose mortal remains were in the coffin to the side of my lectern. It was a good introduction. I cannot say it was preceded by a good night's sleep.
Over the years I have taken or spoken at many funeral services for "all sorts and conditions" of people, from the big and glam for a former duchess, to a lonely funeral on the rates for someone who had no one, and nothing, and just me, the undertaker, and the cemetery manager there; suicides, and maybe-suicides; friends, relatives, relatives who were also friends; loved parishioners; complete strangers; nice people, nasty people, people you couldn't tell were one or the other; timely deaths and untimely; thankfully, never (so far, D.V.) a child, nor anyone murdered. All are different.
This last week I did something new. Two things, in fact. The first was to celebrate the funeral in church on a Saturday, and to keep the committal at the crematorium until the Monday morning following, first sparrows. The method behind this radical madness was that Saturday is an easier day for everyone to come to, and if the funeral is to be in a church, and the reception after, nearby, then it is hugely disruptive to break the occasion with a visit to the crem in the middle. My friend wanted her friends and family to stay together, from the church to the pub, and not to lose themselves on the Oxford ring road. For her, that was the service - not just in church, but to the pub too, and everyone being together. Togetherness - theologians call it "communion" - was the key to the sacramentality of what we were doing.
On other occasions I have gone alone to the crematorium - especially when working in central London - after the funeral in church, assuring the family that everything was completed in the service we shared, and it was better for them to stay together and talk with fondness and hilarity about the person who had died, than to traipse up to Golders Green or Mortlake, for a five-minute prayer of dispatch. When my father died, we had hoped to keep the crematorium service to a very few closest family but, quite understandably, those who had been in church wanted to see it through, to pay their respects to the end.
This time, two days later, I wasn't alone. My friend's son came, and the two of us presided over music and prayers for a few minutes, and finally closed the curtain. He said he felt he was just tidying up, that everything had already been done. And then we walked back to the Little Palace for tea.
Which brings me to the other new thing I did. Well, not quite new. I tried it once before in Chelsea, when faced with a posse of friends of the co-owner of a local hairdressing salon who'd dropped dead at 37, and whose funeral was to be in the West Indies the next day. They asked for something in church at the same time. When it came to it, I said "I didn't know Terry at all, but you all did - so maybe you'd tell me something about him now?" And I walked around with my microphone like Jerry Springer. And it worked like a dream - wonderful contributions of good stories from kind people. I told my friend about this, and she said she'd love it for her funeral. So, I tried it again - but this time, knowing the person, so unable to feign ignorance. Her son kicked it off with a perfectly nuanced and moving few words, and an invitation to add to them. After a hesitation, the congregation took up the challenge, and we heard some marvellous stories, infinitely better than anything even the best parson could cobble together after a family meeting.
Thinking about it all now, it strikes me that the funeral is not all about the body, but about what the body once had, and which now rests in the hearts and memories of those who loved the person who has died, and in the eternal heart and memory of God. And that's why the Monday morning obsequies, though prayerful and respectful, were not the real thing - it had already been done, the drawing together at the funeral itself of family and friends to celebrate a life well lived.