I have just witnessed a funeral as it should be: very different, I am sorry to say, from most funerals I conducted when I was still in post.
A family member in his early 60s was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died a month later. He was Congolese. His coffin, pictured here, was made of banana leaves.
The Congolese system is to drop everything to be with the dying person. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the soon-to-be-widowed was not to be left alone in the house. Friends and relatives arrived. They talked, they reminisced, they prayed, they sang; but the important point was to be with him. Until the funeral.
It took place in Britain, and compromises had to be made. Still, I couldn’t help reflecting on the cultural contrast. The focus of attention was on the dying and dead person. It was an occasion – about him, what was happening to him, and the mystery of death. In a sense it was the equivalent of what the British do at baptisms and weddings: paying attention to the person at a significant moment.
Characteristically, the British do it differently. Until the death actually takes place it is denied. Of course you won’t die! The doctors have something else they are going to try. The prayer group urges God to take the cancer away, assuring us that healing is possible. Even among hospital chaplains, it often happens that nobody knows how to address the situation realistically and constructively.
Then the British funeral service is full of words. Some are appropriate: about the person in the coffin, or the bereaved, or how we interpret death. In addition, however, we fill up the time with others. One minister seizes the opportunity to tell mourners that they need Jesus; another has a lot to say about the dead person’s past, nothing about the present and future. Official orders of service insist that, unless we are polishing the brasses, we cannot do anything inside a church building without bible readings, prayers and hymns. The overall effect, I now realise to my shame, is to distract people from the sacramental significance of the moment. It is as though we are determined to ignore the fact that people die. Those Congolese did it better. They knew how to mourn when it was time to mourn.
Another difference – or perhaps just the same difference writ large – was the matter of work. The Congolese tradition is to stop whatever one is doing and attend to the dying person. The British, of course, can’t. They have to go to work. Few employers are willing to grant an indefinite period of time off while waiting for someone to die.