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?

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