My experience of rituals surrounding dying and death has increased during the last three years through personal experience and through my professional training for Christian ministry. My knowledge about such rituals has increased too. I only read about historic Reformed attitudes to funeral services at the beginning of my current university work. This essay allows me the opportunity to share my developing thoughts about the place of funerals in Scottish society with reference to Christian ministers.
In a recent report prepared to mark the end of a training placement I wrote the following remarks:
Pastoral reflection has included discussion … about the purpose of funerals, an
ongoing concern in my preparation for ministry. I am still unpersuaded about the
reasons for Church of Scotland ministers dedicating themselves to funerals and
bereavement pastoral care in a pluralistic Scotland. I am beginning to think
that ministers should restrict such practice to caring for church members
through bereavement. This is a conclusion based on study through the Worship
Ritual and Belief course at Glasgow University, conference speakers at recent
candidate conferences, and personal reflection on my experience of grieving and
bereavement. The basis for this thinking is my growing conviction that there is
a difference between pastoral care for church members (or Christians), and
pastoral care for non-church members (or non-Christians).
It strikes me that the re-invention of rites of passage in Scotland is something that is already happening. The problem for qualitative reflection on this change can be described by considering John Drane’s comments about the post-modern condition. Contrary to standard definitions and descriptions, Drane argues that post-modern people do believe in absolute truth. (Drane 2000: 135) They just do not articulate or express their search for that truth in ways that sit easily with classic modern Western views of meaning, truth and value. Drane argues that far from denying big stories, the post-modern fascination with stories and telling stories illustrates a longing to discover compelling metanarratives. For Drane the New Age movement is one big metanarrative quest. The post-modern condition is a rejection of modernity’s metanarrative rather than a rejection of metanarrative as such. One implication might be the idea that different people will interpret existing rites in new ways without changing the accidental or external forms of those rites.
While other rites of passage are changing dramatically the funeral is becoming the only rite of passage common to all people. This comment does not ignore the decrease of Christian funerals, that is, funerals officiated by a Christian. And it does not ignore the funeral traditions of other religions in Scotland. But I am suggesting that there is very little real difference between a humanist funeral and a nominally Christian funeral.
The following discussion is based mostly on one book. I try to show that Christian reflection on death and funerals does not offer hope that non-Christians can somehow appropriate into their own funeral experiences. The only Christian hope that non-Christians can take involves believing what Christians believe, and practising what Christians practise. But the discussion also critiques funeral liturgies that place emphasis on the dead person. Whatever non-Christians believe about life and death the problems that Protestants in particular have to address over funerals originate in a crisis of theology. Whether conservative or liberal, evangelical or not, Christian ministers need to ask themselves if they can take non-Christian funerals while maintaining any credibility. Does what they believe about life and death affect what they say and do at such funerals?
Sheppy’s books in the bibliography are easily the most impressive I have read in this area. However, despite being well informed about the topic in general (his discussion of the Tony Bland case was useful), there are hints of the theological crisis that has crippled the Christian church. Sheppy begins his first volume with a reference to the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission, and its 1965 report on the second series of alternative services. It is claimed that the report’s comments on funeral liturgies emphasise ‘dealing with the dead’, although it is recognised that the Commission looks to pastoral care of the living too. Sheppy, of course, wants to suggest that ‘funerary rites have to address both the living and the dead.’ (Sheppy 2003:10) His concern is to discuss the middle ground between Catholic and Evangelic (sic) streams within Anglicanism.
Immediately, he begins a discussion of the reasons for the gap between the expectation and the performance of ministers at funerals. Four points are made: ministers can appear automatic and remote in their conduct at funerals; the liturgical content is not always appropriate, or not ‘always conducive to a helpful rite of passage’; the theological content may not be appropriate; and the ‘necessary sense of community’ may not be possible. All these appear to me to be symptomatic of Christian ministers attempting to minister to nominal Christians or non-Christians in a post-Christian society. They are almost bound to be true if the minister is leading unknown people in a funeral service – Christian or otherwise. How can you minister effectively if you do not know who you are ministering to?
Sheppy comments to this effect when he writes: ‘Ultimately the rite cannot perform what the community does not share.’ (Sheppy 2003: 20) Perhaps an appropriate paraphrase would be ‘the minister cannot evoke in people thoughts they do not believe.’ Sheppy’s response to this problem is frustrating. He is aware of the problem and he articulates it well. He can appreciate that people mourning without any meaningful understanding of Christian death are likely to be puzzled by words like ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ But Sheppy’s solution to these problems seems to lie in his appreciation of the universalism of Origen. At least that seems to be the conclusion when Sheppy rounds off a discussion of Origen’s eschatology, including these words: ‘In our dying and death, … God is at work once again in a new creation ex nihilo. We cannot know in what form we shall share in this new creation, and it is pastorally unwise to offer as certainity what can only ever be speculation. Our destiny is to live as Jesus lived, united to God by ties of perfect love.’ (Sheppy 2003: 74)
Sheppy follows this with two weak pages outlining his view against a substitutionary atonement in favour of what he calls the representative view. The representative view somehow aligns with the cosmic victory model of the cross of Christ, and Sheppy uses this to offer a hopeful spin on funerals. Sheppy betrays his fears when he writes that the ‘the gospel can be proclaimed, but there will be a determination to avoid using the emotional trauma of bereavement as an occasion of further stress.’ (Sheppy 2003: 76) I can only assume that by ‘gospel’ Sheppy means some reductionist evangelistic statement commending Christianity to the mourners. Is the Paschal Mystery, interpreted according to any view of the atonement, not itself a proclamation of the gospel? The story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus come close to defining the gospel. Indeed, Sheppy wants his readers to believe that funeral liturgies should encourage us to see the death and resurrection of the deceased as part of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
There are a number of difficulties with all this, not least Sheppy’s own qualification of his tendency to universalism. He writes about the traditional heaven and hell model, and describes how he cannot change it and remain true to it at the same time. His belief in divine and human freedom means that he cannot declare an absolute universalism. Since love cannot be coerced ‘there must always be the possibility of alienation.’ (Sheppy 2003: 82, 83) This undermines his effort to articulate a theological hope that can be offered to all in funeral rituals.
Hope in the context of death is commonly focused on the hope that the deceased is at peace. Sheppy’s analysis takes this underlying assumption for granted, yet he cannot honestly offer this hope to the mourners. No man or woman - ordained Christian minister or otherwise – can offer that kind of certainty. Rather, the hope that Christians can offer relates to the nature and character of God, not the destiny of those that have died. This move away from hope in a person’s destiny to hope in the character of God would be my tendency in all bereavement and funeral situations.
Sheppy goes on to discuss the funeral as a way of representing the journey that mourners require to take. No funeral can fully be the rite of passage required for the deceased or the individual mourner or the community. It is only one aspect of the ritualisation of death. The reader – this reader, at least – is left slightly confused by Sheppy’s actual understanding of what happens theologically at funerals.
It is this theological confusion that qualifies the otherwise excellent work of Sheppy. My feeling was that he was critical of the Reformed reticence surrounding funerals. But I did not feel he embraced the position that the Reformers were reacting against in their reticence. His view of the deceased person or the body during funeral rites appeared to be based upon modern philosophical discussions about the nature of death, and around various discussions about biblical terminology on life, death and human nature. I did not find any passage where he defended traditional prayers for the dead.
The reason for my extended critique of parts of Sheppy’s work is to illustrate the difficulty that Christians have with funerals. The Church itself cannot agree between its different traditions on the basic truths about life beyond death. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are different trends in contemporary funeral and bereavement rituals. Beyond the fact that people tended to bury their dead, there is little or no guidance in the Bible for Christians or others seeking an authoritative word on the matter of funerals. This begs many questions, not least, why do people feel they need to ask someone else to take their family funerals? Why should there be any alarm at the commercialisation of funerals and bereavement? How is the commercialisation of death different from the commercialisation of any other rite of passage, and any other mainstream religious activity? Peter Ward’s Selling Worship could easily be the first in a series: Selling Bereavement, anyone?
Different books summarise the purpose of funerals in different ways. They honour the dead and help the living. (Robb 1996: 9) They allow the sharing of a dead person’s story, the proclamation of the Christian story, and the marking of the end of that life story. (Anderson & Foley 2001: 116) But none of these descriptions requires a Christian content. (Anderson and Foley’s ‘Christian story’ could be substituted by any worldview without changing the sentiments they advance.) And, if a specific Christian content is not required for funerals, then it stands to reason that a Christian minister is not required to officiate.
None of the above should lead the reader to think that I dismiss funerals or the pastoral care of bereaved people. I believe that Christians are called to weep with those who weep. But Grimes is right to state that rites of passage need reinvention, and Christians should be the most confident of people in reinventing responses to death. If and when I become a Christian minister, I will find it very difficult to take funerals on behalf of families that I do not know. I would encourage leaders of families I do know, wherever possible, to take responsibility for the funerals within their family circles. Part of my ongoing ministry will be to offer people a way of life that prepares them fully for life beyond death. That preparation includes preparing to die, and preparing the rite of passage that marks that final journey.
Anderson, H., & Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals. Weaving
Foley, E. 2001 Together the Human and the Divine. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass
Atkinson, D.J., & New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral
Field, D.H. (eds) 1995 Theology. Leicester / Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP
Drane, J. 2000 The McDonaldization of the Church. London, Darton, Longman and Todd
Robb, N.J. 1996 A Time to Die and a Time to Live. St Andrews, Blake Publications
Sheppy, P.P.J. 2003 Death Liturgy and Ritual. Volume I – A Pastoral and Liturgical Theology. Aldershot, Ashgate
Sheppy, P.P.J. 2004 Death Liturgy and Ritual. Volume II – A Commentary on Liturgical Texts. Aldershot, Ashgate
Thanks to Dorothy Granger for providing access to most of the books above.