“Can I be buried from my church?” It’s a sensitive question and one that is difficult to raise in the emotional turmoil following the death of a loved one or when contemplating one’s own death.
My comments here are the result of a recent clash between a priest and a funeral home. They are prefaced by my understanding that funeral arrangements are in the hands of the family, and the church may or may not be invited to have a part in it.
Death is a universal human reality. If I have learned nothing else in the 38 years since I have been ordained, I know this: no one gets out of this life alive! We all die. Throughout human history, death has been marked in some way or another – simply or elaborately, with accompanying religious rites or not. There are almost as many practices around the reverent disposition of a human body as there are cultures: some bodies are interred almost immediately while others wait for weeks; some are buried while others are burned; some burial practices are on land and some are on water; some wash the body in preparation while some will not touch the dead; some have religious rites, others civil celebrations. Still others have a simple family gathering.
(While you did not hear it from me, next time your mind wanders from the liturgy in church, take a look at an article concerning funerals on page 565 in the Book of Alternative Services. It is most interesting!)
The Christian attitude toward death, while changing over the centuries, has been inextricably linked to the biblical accounts of our belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the saving power found in Christ and the hope of eternal life. It is entirely fitting that the church be the place from which a Christian life is celebrated and that the ordained leader of the church be the minister of the service. The church is the one place that can mark all of life’s passages – birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage (and, yes, divorce and remarriage), joyful times, sorrowful times, and death.
That’s the theory, but what happens in practice? It is sad to say, but there is sometimes an uneasy professional relationship between the clergy and the funeral industry. Like most of life, it pays to be proactive in this area as well. Here are a couple of thoughts you might consider, remembering that all of us will die:
- Tell your family what your wishes are. In my family, we were very fortunate that both our father and our mother were very open with us about their wishes regarding their “funerals.” They spoke to us about it and they wrote it down. And, God bless them, they gave us the wiggle room to decide at the time of their deaths what was best and what was practical so that we did not live with the guilt of knowing we missed something.
- Get a will. If you don’t write down your wishes, then by default someone else will decide it for you.
- Pre-plan your funeral with a funeral director. Every funeral home offers a wide variety of services, from very inexpensive to very elaborate. Tell the funeral director that you are a member of a church and that you want the involvement of the church and your local minister. If you wish the church to be the location of your funeral service, tell them that. There is no reason they cannot accommodate your wishes.
- Pre-plan your funeral with your priest so that he or she is aware of your wishes. Write it down and have it put in the parish files. Clergy move!
In my personal experience, both as a consumer of their services and as a priest, I have enjoyed a good relationship with very professional and sensitive people in the funeral industry. But these are not always the reports I receive from clergy. There seems to be an increasing tension between the church and the funeral industry in some places.
When a death occurs, call your priest first and your funeral home second. That way, you can ensure that both professionals work together to help you and support you through this difficult time. Make sure that the cleric is consulted immediately about the time and place of the service. The funeral industry no longer assumes it is dealing with people of faith, so if you wish to have the church involved, contact it early on. Clergy will benefit from establishing a good, open relationship with all the funeral service providers in the community and sharing with them the kinds of expectations they have.
It is not surprising that more funeral services are being led by “civil celebrants” or “rent-a-Revs” than by parish clergy. Why should that be? Certainly, there is an increase in those who have no religious faith and who, for the sake of their own integrity, do not wish a religious presence. However, I suspect that is not the full reason. Here is what I have heard from funeral directors and people who don’t think they can be buried from the church. It is not complimentary: clergy do not always answer their phones and they take a day or two to get back to a family requesting their presence at a funeral; clergy are unwilling to lead the funeral services of non-members; clergy are not flexible with their calendars.
Some funeral homes report that the quality of the clergy leadership at funeral services is quite uneven. Some clergy do not take the time to meet with the family ahead of time, some try to get through the service at breakneck speed, and many provide no follow-up at all. I have fielded complaints from people on these very matters. One adult son was furious that a priest took his father’s service by coming to a funeral home 10 minutes before the start of the service and whipping through it in 20 minutes, never mentioning his father’s name once and leaving without evening speaking to the son! And to make matters worse, the father was a parishioner! Incidents like this may account for why funeral homes have taken over the ministry of bereavement counselling and follow-up, an area that once was firmly in the church’s domain.
It always saddens me when tension between funeral professionals and the church somehow infect the marking of the death of an individual. A little pre-planning and communication can make a world of difference. “Can I be buried from my church?” Absolutely.