My first few months with St Ninian’s were characterised by a series of funerals. In more recent months it has been the turn of St James’ and St Anne’s to see several members of the congregation die. We might live in a society which prefers not to think about dying but the reality is that death is never that far away in any community.
An old university friend of mine asked me the other day whether I believed that people go straight to heaven or whether they go to a place of rest first. She has herself fairly recently been bereaved and is at present doing a MA dissertation on bereavement care. I had to admit that I was not sure of my answer to the question. The liturgy of the church is unclear on the matter. We happily talk of ‘resting in peace and rising in glory’ which pre-supposes the second understanding and yet praying with the saints pre-supposes the first. Fortunately my friend said she was herself living happily without clarity on the subject.
I was recently part of another conversation about humanist funerals. I felt on surer ground here. I have attended some excellent humanist funeral ceremonies. They have been well-prepared and well presented. But there is to the Christian mind a lack of hope. There is no hope of life eternal. And you can only say so many times that the deceased will live on in the difference they have made to our lives. One of the real joys as a priest is to take the funeral of someone who has really lived the Christian faith and to share in the sense of hope that is present because of that.
In the meantime the past few months have reminded me of how much easier it is for family to arrange funerals if the person who has died has given indication of what their wishes are – choice of hymns, choice of reading, burial or cremation, do they want a eulogy, modern or old language? Preferably these wishes should have been talked about with the wider family and preferably should be in writing. It is not always possible to meet every request but it removes a lot of stress for families at what is already a difficult time.
Also please make sure that you have written a will (remembering that if you have moved from England you need to have will made under Scottish law) and have generally left your affairs in order as much as possible. Again this makes things so much easier for families.
I will let St Paul have the final word:
‘I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38-39)