Our question this week derives from our call to be stewards of the mysteries of life and death.
A woman in the parish is dying - she does not want a service or any "fuss" -- what to do?
A man died and told the family he did not want a funeral -- but the family is wanting to have something -- what to do?
This week several of our matriarchs share their experiences and insights.
This is one of those issues I always hope to address before the person dies. The dying woman may be open to hearing that others need a time to get together and mourn her passing – that it is only partly about her and her needs at this point. It is a ministry she can perform even in weakness and death. She gets the last word on this as far as formal church services go. People can do what they need to do for themselves or gathered. If it is about control when her life is out of control – it might be presented as a way to set up some parameters for whatever people decide to do.
As for the man who died. Maybe the family can have a party on his birthday when it comes around again. Celebrating and sharing pictures and stories – laughing and crying. The Greek Orthodox have a ceremony a 40 days after a death – a church I attended in Boston used to have it as part of coffee hour after church.
What other non-service suggestions are there?
jledmiston, from A Church for Starving Artists reminds us that we can help clarify some of these questions while our parishioners are still alive:
This is a common experience in the church, I think. We lost a beloved 81 year old who also did not want "anything" which she happened to document one day sitting right next to me as we were completing Funeral Plans together using the forms our church suggests people to complete in the event of our deaths -- she did hers and I did mine. When she stated her wishes out loud, I said that she and I both knew that her friends would still want to have something to honor her - and we did.
We followed all her wishes in terms of cremation, burial, memorial donations, etc. But she couldn't stop us from gathering to thank God for her life. This was going to happen no matter what - even if it happened in someone's living room. When someone says this, I would simply say something like, "But people love you very much and will probably get together to remember what you've meant to them. That is a gift you can give to them."
Karen Sapio shares her insights as to what motivates a person to reject a funeral as well as the disconnect that we in the church can have with those who are not as familiar with church practice:
In my experience when someone says they do not want a funeral what they mean is they do not want an announced-in-the-paper, chancel-choked-with-flowers, procession-with-hearse-across-town, somber-organ-music, long-winded eulogy event. I think you and the family can come up with a creative alternative that honors the family's desire for a helpful/healing rite of passage as well as the deceased desire NOT to have a funeral straight out of central casting. The key is to have a good conversation about what everyone actually wants or doesn't want.
Recently I had a family who said they did not want a funeral, just a graveside service. So I arrived with at the specified hour ready to do my usual 10-15 minute committal service. But the family had arrived ready for each member to say something, for the grandchildren to sing a song, and for several recorded songs to be played on a portable CD player. We were there for over an hour in the BLAZING heat. Too late I figured out that they DID, want a funeral. They just didn't want it in the church. In their minds, "in the church" meant funeral and outside at the cemetery meant "not a funeral". We exist in such a churchy world that we think that since WE know what we mean by funeral, memorial service, graveside, etc. that those words mean the same thing to everyone. Not so.
Earthchick reminds us that we are called to be sensitive to the needs of those who remain:
Though I try to honor the wishes of the deceased whenever possible, my belief is that a funeral is for those left behind, not for the one gone. If the family wants/needs a funeral, I always do it. If they need help accepting that they are doing something their loved one didn't want, I help them with their feelings and work towards helping them claim what they need for their own healing. I like to find out, if I can, why the person did not want a service - it can tell me a lot about the person that may be helpful in ministering to the family. If it is the public nature of a funeral that the deceased did not want, I would talk with the family about doing something private, just for them. But ultimately, I would go with what they wanted. My first priority in the face of death is to minister to those in grief.
Finally, from a friend of the Matriarchs, here is a letter written to the congregation in the face of the death of a beloved member who wanted no services held, followed by her personal reflection on the event:
She wrote to the congregation…
I've been thinking a lot about the plan to have a service of remembrance for xxx. She had directed that no service be held and that her ashes be spread at sea. My pastoral concern was for people in the congregation who felt a need to honor her life and to have some closure. I've heard from those who say I should go ahead with the service and from those who say I should not.
This morning I decided that it is important to honor her wishes. Although I may strongly disagree, it's not my place nor my right to go against her instructions. If I were to go ahead with a service, it would also say to others in the parish that I could not be trusted to follow their final wishes. As your pastor, it's crucial that you trust me to do what's important for you after you die.
For those who wanted a service, I hope you can find another way to honor her life. For the parish community, the altar flowers will be given in her memory on a Sunday in September. Based on the conversations I'd had with her, I think that would meet with her approval.
Thanks for understanding, and if you have any questions or concerns, I hope you'll talk with me.
She reflects on the experience…
For the family I would just suggest a small gathering at their home.
I think those that make these kind of insistences for no service are thinking only of themselves -- it often comes down to a fear of death or a fear that no one will attend or a feeling that a service puts too much attention on the deceased. What they don't understand is that the service really isn't about the person who died; it's about everyone left behind. We're going to be discussion this issue in the parish this fall. Ultimately and for even the nicest person who might die, to insist on no service is really selfish.
What might you offer from your wells of experience and insight?
May you live this day and every day in God's amazing grace+
(image courrtesy of www.websterfunerals.com)