Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Last Funeral 4)

Two days before the funeral I heard that the vicar was not allowed to bury Robin on his farmland as it was unconsecrated land. So, as a Baptist though unable to officiate in the church I was given this unusual responsibility. At least for me it was unusual. My last funeral but the first time I was involved in a private land committal. When we processed out of the church behind the wicker coffin I squeezed into the hearse as we drove to the farmyard.

There the coffin was loaded onto a trailer behind a temperamental tractor which managed to start up, after problems the day before.  To hold the coffin in place, 5 grandchildren clambered onto the trailer. They were needed!  I joined one of the families in the 4x4 as we pitched up and down on the rough ground as we started driving over the fields. Through one large one, then another with the children holding the coffin from falling off the trailer's open rear.  Parking, we then walked through to the corner of what will soon become a wildflower meadow.

The rain held off, birds sang sweetly and we completed the sad task of saying farewell prayers and making the committal.  I had been told that two of his dogs were nearby.  Sure enough their grave was clearly marked and very close. Reuben and Briar were greatly loved by Robin, especially Reuben, a black Labrador.  In one of those strange near death experiences, Robin suddenly spoke and told the family gathered around him that Reuben had come to be with him.  That he was there in the room.  It is extraordinary what can happen when someone is dying and comfort comes.

As we turned back to join the guests I felt a wave of sadness.  Someone asked me a few days ago which I found the more difficult to conduct - weddings or funerals.  I remember at theological college being told that weddings were more difficult because they marked the beginning of a relationship in the knowledge that ahead they faced all the complexity of making marriage work.  What a responsibility! Well, yes.  But for me coping with the grief of the bereaved has always been much more difficult.

I end this chapter of responsibility with gratitude to God that I have survived this ministry. Real gratitude. 

Friday, June 23, 2023

Last Funeral (3)

Yesterday, in boiling heat, I took part in my last funeral.  As expected Robin Page's funeral had a packed church with seats in the surrounding graveyard, as speakers relayed the service. I mentioned earlier that he was a colourful, controversial, local character with a high national profile.  Obituaries in most daily papers described his highly active life as countryman, farmer, pioneer conservationist, TV presenter, friend of royalty, journalist, author, broadcaster, political activist, campaigner, international naturalist - specially Africa, National Trust Board member and so on and on.  Robin had asked me to take his service but since he also wanted it in the parish church, as a Baptist minister I was prevented from leading, which the delightful vicar took over.

A friend of the family and another character conservationist was asked to give the tribute.  He took this extremely seriously, phoning me at length about the content of his address.  Initially there was a misunderstanding because he thought he was giving the main address and I was saying a few words at the beginning!.  You can see where this is going can't you?  It was well-crafted with humour and good content. When he had asked me how long he should be I had gingerly suggested around 10 minutes.  Well, it took 25 minutes but the congregation applauded him.

The difficulty was that in my address I too was reflecting on Robin before going onto a particularly relevant theme (he loved his sheep) of The Good Shepherd who moves Psalm 23 into reality at Easter. As you can imagine he had beaten me to several details.  So, I asked the Spirit to wield an editor's blue pencil while I was speaking and cut out sections but keep the essentials. Not for the first time!  And, nobody noticed the slicing and dicing. 

His first hymn was his favourite: In the bleak midwinter.  with that last verse: If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb.  Years ago, in one of his columns he had written that even if his funeral is in the middle of a heatwave in July he wanted it sung.  Well, one month out!

Perhaps, since this is my last funeral and this service marks the end of this responsibility in my ministry I can post one or two more details.  You don't have to read them.

Tuesday, June 6, 2023


Interrupting thoughts on funerals I am glad to report that I preached my first sermon this year last Sunday. Yes, it's been a lean year for preaching. Carol has agreed to monitor my levels of competence as I shuffle through my late 70-s.  She deemed it acceptable though, because it was Trinity Sunday and doctrinally somewhat heavy, she said she would have liked more illustrations.

Interestingly, my son saw me preach on zoom.  Before I began I greeted everyone on zoom by a wave which pleased him as a personal gesture.  He commented on the way I had preached on the Acts 2 sermon and brought out the power of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  But he said he could remember one of the illustrations and picture it.  On our back lawn, worn in places by the boys playing football, the verges were full of tall grass, brambles, weeds.  Our contribution to wilding.  I found a deflated football flat in the weeds. To my astonishment a little further on I found another. Even more astounded I found a third.  I cleaned them up, stuck them in a bag and was ready for the Pentecost Children's talk.

As I pulled them one out of the bag one-by-one and dropped them splat on the floor the point became obvious that they needed air.  Filled with air they would have bounce and purpose again.  This led to connecting with one aspect of the Holy Spirit is that he is the breath of God. But the point of my illustration was that we needed to see the fuller picture that Jesus gave in John 16 of the Counsellor being being sent once Jesus was ascended as God to work everywhere, all the time just like Jesus.  

Oh, how difficult Trinity Sunday can be!  But understanding more of who God is shouldn't be easy! Worshipping him should! Someone said to me afterwards that most Christian heresies have come from people oversimplifying God. Anyway, I passed Carol's test to be able to preach again.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Last Funeral (2)

In panic I immediately said 'No, I'm sorry but I can't.'' It's painful to recall what happened when I was first asked to take a funeral.  I felt  so desperately unprepared and overwhelmed. In my defence, I need to explain that this was within a couple of days of moving to my first church in Lancashire. With Carol and our one month old baby we had been transplanted from warm Oxford to a cold Blackburn. Visitors were surprised that we were huddled around the gas fire.  Everything was new. Family life, our new town, and first ministry. Yet, among my new responsibilities, this request to take a funeral totally threw me. Didn't I expect that to be part of my job? Well, yes, but somehow, in my training for ministry which had given me plenty of experience in leading worship and preaching, preparation for leading funerals had been an absent theme.  

It was a local undertaker who called me, welcoming me as the new minister, and and asking me whether I was free later in the week to conduct a funeral. He blithely assumed that I had some competence. I excused my panicked negative answer by saying that I had not yet begun officially. My induction service was still a couple weeks away. I didn't reveal I had never taken a funeral service before. I couldn't disclose my sense of dread at having to cope with finding the right language and expressing the right kind of help for something I had never attempted before.  Never mind the mechanics of learning how burials or the crematorium works. 

Of course I couldn't delay involvement for long!  My church served as a community church for north-west Blackburn which meant nearly 50 funerals every year.  The undertaker was soon on the phone again and this time I shared my inexperience and nervousness.  Arthur was an old hand, and he took me under his wing, explaining that many funerals would begin with prayers around the open coffin in the home.  That I would lead this short time of reflection before indicating the coffin lid should be replaced and the cortege leave for the church service.  

What he couldn't explain was how to help people in grief. The sensitive pastoral process from the first visit to the family. Whenever I knew the family, and the deceased my relationship with them helped immensely, especially when it was clear that the person had Christian faith.  But often, when I didn't know the family, I felt so inadequate coping with the overwhelming sadness, listening to stories about the loved one, bearing with grief, anger, sometimes denial.  Gently working towards planning the service.  I confess that this dimension of ministry has never become easier   I wonder how many other ministers feel that same?