“A memorial service is for those who mourn.” How often have I said these words to family members planning a funeral or memorial service for someone they loved?
Part of that mourning is honoring the beliefs of the person who has died. If your grandmother was Jewish, you shouldn’t have a Baptist funeral. It isn’t respectful of her and her faith. At Christ Church, as at other Episcopal churches, we encourage members to let us know their wishes for their funerals. Do you have a favorite hymn that you would like sung? Did you love the archaic language of Rite I, and want it at your funeral? Do you hate “Amazing Grace,” and don’t want it sung even though it is a standard at funerals? Write it down; put it with your other papers in the file marked “Death, in the event of.” On September 17 and October 1 we will have a workshop at Christ Church that will include planning the service you want.
But part of mourning is also being respectful of the beliefs of the people left behind; those who mourn. And this is where families get complicated. Once upon a time people lived in villages. Their descendants, by and large, lived within a relatively narrow geographic and socio-cultural area. If your grandparents were Church of England, odds were that you were also. If your parents were Methodist, their friends and family probably mostly were also.
That is no longer true. The baby boomer who was baptized at Christ Church in the 1950’s might now be Buddhist. Or Foursquare. Or vaguely deist with a bit of borrowed Native American spirituality mixed in. Even if the adult child who is primarily in charge of making funeral arrangements is Episcopalian, odds are that they are trying to take into account the feelings of the Jewish in-law and the Wiccan grand-daughter.
And here is where my counsel becomes different from that of my elders in ministry. The priests I follow in ministry were often very definite: a Christian should be buried from the church, and there should always be Holy Communion at the service. My advice is different. I ask about the faith of the family members. Are there people who would feel excluded? What about the friends of the deceased who attend? I have crafted a service from the “Order for Burial” in the Book of Common Prayer using 12-Step material, for someone whose connection with the church was the AA meeting held in the parish hall. I have created abridged, ecumenical, graveside services for family of church members who are being buried at the Veteran’s Memorial Cemetery.
Does this mean I would depart entirely from the order for Christian burial in the Book of Common Prayer? No. I am an Episcopal priest, and it is my role to proclaim that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities . . . nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If a family doesn’t want that proclamation, I will send them elsewhere with my blessing. But within that basic framework and message, there is much room for variation and respect for the feelings and beliefs of those left behind.