Covid 19: Funeral

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Today I took two funerals at our local crematorium. They were both pre-booked before the lockdown and neither of the deceased contracted Covid 19. 

They were both local families who had requested my services but neither attended the church.

Usually I would meet the family in person at their home a week before the funeral to discuss arrangements, prepare the eulogy, read scripture and pray. If they are willing I would then return a second time to confirm the details (ensuring that I have the correct names of all the Grandchildren etc), read scripture and pray. 

I would then meet the family in the home of the deceased the morning of the funeral for “Family Prayers” before leading the procession (with the hearse) to the end of the road. A Welsh Valley tradition. 

The service and committal are both usually at the Crematorium, (very occasionally at the church). 

In such a close community such as the Welsh Valleys, funerals are very well attended. I have rarely done a funeral with less than fifty mourners (and as many as 2,000). 

Following the service I would receive an invite to the wake (usually at the local rugby club). I do go on occasion – if appropriate. 

The following week I hope to meet the family again with a printed copy of the Eulogy in a card and offer further literature about our church and the hope we have in Jesus.

But in light of the Coronavirus and the national lockdown I can no longer follow this process.

So here are some practical pointers that I hope will be of assistance if you are conducting a funeral service during lockdown.

Before the Funeral

Pray.

This is going to be tough and made even harder under the heightened anxiety of the lockdown.

Prepare everything over the phone

Phone technology is more familiar to older relatives (and friends) of the deceased. Nobody will feel left out. Zoom and other video conferencing apps can cause added anxiety in a potentially difficult situation. I would not use them unless recommended by the family.

Make sure you have contacted all the family and friends that wish to be involved.

Your initial contact may give you all the information you need, but it is worthwhile to call wider family and friends out of courtesy to see if they have anything to add. 

Follow Government guidelines

New regulations limit the amount of mourners that can attend a funeral. Our local crematorium has stipulated a maximum of five guests. Make the family aware that you are up to date with the guidelines. This will save any embarrassment on the day if others wish to come.

Liaise with the Funeral Director about who can come.

Please be sensitive, deciding who can come can cause a family feud at a most difficult time.

Make the effort to contact all those in the immediate family (and close friends) who cannot come because of the restrictions (especially elderly relatives). Help them feel involved by asking for any anecdotes that they wish to add to the eulogy, or simply share with them what you hope to say on the day. Assure them that you will give their condolences during the service. Offer to send a copy of the Eulogy and Order of Service to those who can’t come.

The Funeral Service

The families grief will be amplified by the tragedy of seeing row after row of empty seats. Be conscious of this. 

Arrive as early as possible to give you more time with the family. Expect additional members to attend to view from afar. Make sure you go and speak to them – even if they are five minutes walk away in the car park.

A gentle handshake or a pat on the arm speaks volumes, but this cannot be done. Social Distancing limits our ability to communicate, so more time is necessary to show your support to the family verbally. They will need it.

Thank God for the five in attendance and preach Christ as you would normally to a full house, to quote Rev. Richard Wurmbrand “Preach to the unseen angels”. You will have a small but captivated audience with no where to hide, they are in deep grief and pleading for hope. Jesus is always the answer. Take your time, embrace the silence. 

When it comes to the hymn. Offer the family to stand and simply ponder the words if they do not feel comfortable singing in an empty room. Gauge their response, if they are not singing, remain mute.

At the end of the service

Still respecting ‘Social Distancing’, offer your condolences again to the family then politely and promptly depart, do not linger. 

Wash your hands when you get home. 

Follow up with a phone call over the coming days.

Love them. Pray for them.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18

Bridging the gap – a humanist funeral

I was recently asked to take a funeral for a very popular young lady who died tragically in a motorbike accident.

This request came as a surprise!

The husband was going to get a humanist in to do it (as he did for his fathers funeral), but owing to our links with her wider family they thought it was appropriate to ask me.

This request did come (initially) with some strict stipulations! We were to have no hymns, no Bible reading, no prayers, no church, no God!

I know many ministers at this point would have said “no thank you”. But I felt a strong compulsion to do it.

As a result I spent many hours with the family, preparing a eulogy to fill the 50 minute slot at the crematorium. The eulogy was then to be split with (popular) songs that had significance for the family.

As the family shared their memories with me I quickly realised that there are times where it is best to show the love of Jesus by simply being there and giving the Biblical view on the world when asked.

The family allowed me to pray at the beginning of the service and at the end committal (where I shared the comfort offered by God in Christ Jesus).

The Eulogy was well received and it was presented as a thanks giving service to God for the life that we were all gathered to remember.

I did not compromise doctrine at any point, whilst also being of loving service to the family.

The community were extremely grateful for our involvement and support during this tough time. Some estimates for the funeral attendance went as high as 700 people, easily achievable by the sea of people we were greeted by on our arrival. This young lady was very popular.

During one of the songs, I tucked myself away in the pulpit and came to God in prayer (not for the first time in regards to this situation).

I asked “Lord should I be doing this? Is this truly glorifying you?  The Lord instantly responded and gave me the words of John 2 ‘the wedding of Cana’ to ponder and I have done so ever since.

Here are some thoughts ……

I understand that this reading talks of a totally different situation, a celebration of marriage, rather than mourning a tragic death.

But there are some clear lessons that we can learn from this passage and apply to the situation of taking a humanist funeral and wider community engagement.

A wedding in the time of our reading comprised of a great feast, which in the tradition of the day, meant dancing and heavy drinking that would often last for days. Not the environment that you would expect a pious Christian to visit, let alone the Son of God.

But we are told in John 2:2 that Jesus went, and not only did He go, but He was obviously involved in the proceedings to some degree. I do not think that it’s much of a coincidence that the wine ran dry shortly after the disciples arrived (John 2:3). The bridegroom must have been checking Mary’s +1 invite to see how the disciples got in and fishing is thirsty work!

The point is, Jesus was there at the feast, in the community at a special time in their lives. Jesus was involved in the celebration of the wedding, just as He was involved with the mourners (who did not believe in Jesus either) at His friend Lazarus’s graveside (John 11:40).

Jesus got out there and was involved in people’s lives; our God is a missional God, a lesson for every Christian!

But it is clear from scripture that His involvement did not delve into anything that would jeopardise the truth of who He is, Jesus committed no sin (1 Peter 2:22). As Christians we must follow our Lord’s example in the same way, we must be in the world but not of the world (John 17:16). As Christians we must not shy away from opportunities that allow us to engage with the community that we are called to serve. We must exercise our Gospel freedom, mindful not to go so far as to jeopardise the truth that we know and stand for. A mistake we have all made at some point I am sure! (1 John 1:9).

Jesus was at a worldly feast and yet remained totally obedient to our Father God. I was leading a humanist funeral that I had no business at, but by God’s Grace I was able to be involved, and witnessed the love of God in a way that was palatable to those gathered, no bible, no preaching, no hymns.

We read in John 2:3 that the wedding feast took a turn for the worst; they had run out of wine!

This may seem trivial for us today, as we could just go to the shops and buy some more. But in the historic context of our reading, such a thing would have caused the greatest offence to the guests, grief and shame to the family.

Mary thus pleads with Jesus in desperation to assist, which He eventually does after a strong rebuke (that I will not get into today).

Jesus instructs the servants to fill the jars with water (John 2:7) and then instructs them to pour some out for the master of the banquet (John 2:8) and it was better than the finest wine that they served first (John 2:10).

Notice that Jesus had no direct involvement with the jars, the water or the wine, the miracle was done in an instant, with no showmanship or religious protocol. Jesus simply said to the servants “Fill the jars up with water, and then draw out the wine”.

There was no command from Jesus for the water to change into wine, in the same way Jesus commands the storm to calm (John 4:39) or the demon to depart from the possessed man (Luke 4:35) or when He called Lazarus out of the tomb (John 11:43). We read of no action taken to the water, or the jars by our Lord, we are not told that He touched them in any way, like when Jesus put mud on a blind man’s eyes to heal Him (John 9:6). We are not told that the water touched Jesus, just as the sick woman touched His gown and was healed (Luke 8:45). Jesus did not ask all the guests at the wedding to sit down whilst He publicly offered the water up to God in prayer before the miracle took place, just as He did with the loaves and fish when He fed the thousands (John 6:11). He did not ask the servants to move the jars or change anything that was currently in use (pre-miracle) as He did the disciples who He told to cast their net on the other side of the boat to find them filled with fish (John 5:6). Jesus simply said, “Fill the jars up with water, then draw out the wine”.

The water miraculously changed, instantly, without any showmanship or activity, grand religious gesture, or command. It was done in an instant, which for me gives further gravitas to the miracle. Jesus simply willed the water to become wine and it was. Amazing! He is truly God.

Within the context of the day, running out of wine at a feast would come with the deepest of despair for the host; it was a situation of utter weakness and shame. Yet by simply being there, Jesus not only showed love and comfort in the situation, but transformed a terrible event into one that was far better than what they knew of before. All without the religious protocols that we insist on. The master of the banquet said “You have saved the best till now” (Luke 2:10).

For the miracle to happen, Jesus had to be welcomed to the wedding feast on the terms of the host, under their restrictions. Jesus still went and His Glory was revealed (John 2:11), without the submission to, or insistence of, various religious acts and worship styles. On this occasion God’s glory simply came through our Lord’s presence at this worldly feast.

It is through the Word of God that we are saved and grow as Christians. I am not saying that this passage argues otherwise. A Christians presence in worldly activity, whether marriages or funerals or birthday parties or rugby games is not enough to transform the lost soul, people do need to come under the Word of God. But forcing the un-churched who do not know the Lord, into our formula of religious protocol, to sing hymns they do not know and sit through a message they will not hear, will not save them either!

What Jesus is showing us here in John 2 is that by insisting that a funeral is done “our way” or not at all, at the cost of an opportunity to witness the love of Christ (without Doctrinal Compromise) can be counterproductive to the furtherance of the Gospel.

It is clear that my doubts that brought me to prayer at the funeral were in fact doubts towards the power of the Gospel!

It has made me ask myself; Does my faith lie more in the conduct and place in which a ceremony such as a funeral is taken? Or is my faith in Christ who can turn water into wine simply by His Will at a worldly feast.

In a perfect world, I would love to have held the funeral at Noddfa, read God’s word aloud, sing Hymns with those gathered, to God’s Praise and of course share the hope of Jesus to the 700 people that day. But we are not in a perfect world (Genesis 3:17), we are in a post-Christian society where people no longer know how to sit through a message, do not know the many great hymns penned from our very own land and do not even know who Jesus really is! As a result there are more and more humanist funerals each month that offer no hope to the lost soul.

Is it not better as Christians to be involved in such lawful situations that we have no business to be at, to show the love of Jesus, trusting in His will to soften the hearts of our generation, than to not be there at all?

Is it not better to be the light in the darkness, rather than insist that the darkness comes into the light? (John 1:5).

Please pray for the family and friends of the deceased, I hold them in the highest regard, they are wonderful people and close to my heart.

Please also pray for all those gathered at the funeral, that by our very witnesses, they would seek to come to Noddfa to learn more of God’s love, to come under His word and come to trust Jesus as their saviour.

 

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