I wonder if you have noticed a trend that has been building in our area over the last several years? The obituary pages of the local paper report an ever increasing number of persons who have requested that there be no service of any kind following their death. I think that is very sad and very hurtful.
A few, not many, of my former parishioners had talked to me about not wanting a service in order to spare their loved ones of yet more grief. There seemed to be three reasons most often offered. One was the memory of some horrific funeral they had attended that was an overly long combination of inappropriate eulogies or preaching of condemnation to hell for almost everyone present, sometimes including the deceased. Another was an overwhelming sense of guilt about their failures as a member of their family, failures that had been left unreconciled and unredeemed until too late. The third was a genuine desire to relieve their loved ones of the burden of yet one more event of sadness and grief. It was as if they thought they could just sneak unnoticed out the back door in order to let the party of life go on without them being missed.
They always changed their minds after a little conversation, but I see by the paper that that doesn’t happen always and everywhere. Moreover, I’m convinced that some persons make that decision out of spite and long held grudges. They can leave this world inflicting one last deep wound that gets even with a last act of revenge.
A funeral, memorial service or interment is a time not so much for closure as reconciliation. Some non-religious families understand that and do what they can with backyard celebrations of life, or something similar. For Christians it is also, and much more, a holy time of recognition that, in Christ, reconciliation also means redemption and new birth into new life. That’s what makes it so rewarding to celebrate as we grieve, laugh as we cry, and tell stories until there are no more stories to be told. The prayers and blessings offered invoke the power of God to flood this particular time, place and gathering with his abounding and steadfast love. It is in the context of this Christian love where healing can begin to take place that will allow us to honestly confront and forgive the sins of omission and commission of the deceased, our own failures in our relationship with them, and discover anew the opportunities for love that had always been there and often experienced.
Oddly enough, there is a prayer in the marriage service of our Book of Common Prayer that, I think, is even more profound for moments like these. Amended slightly for funerals, it would read:
Eternal God, creator and preserver of all life, author of salvation and giver of all grace: look with favor upon the world you have made, and for which your Son gave his life, and especially upon this family here gathered. Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, an joy conquer despair. Amen.