This month, like many others, I find myself juggling a hundred and one things as I prepare and organise the myriad of different services to and within the community here in Caithness. By the time this magazine goes to press I will have conducted four funerals in as many weeks. While not wishing to sound morbid, or put a damper on anyone’s lives, funerals and grief are an everyday part of our lives. A number of conversations have arisen as a consequence and have resulted in, I think, a need to put metaphorical pen to paper. So often, deaths seem to occur to other people and when it eventually and inevitably happens to us within our families, we are faced with our own mortality.
As we approach the season of Advent, we are reminded of our transience on this Earth through the liturgical acknowledgements of All Hallows Eve (All Souls), All Hallows Day (All Saints) and Remembrance Sunday. All things that focus our minds on our fragile existence. Like many other things in this world, we can choose not to think about such things. Indeed, in a post-modern society where death is no longer normalised to the extent that it used to be, when faced with such unresolved grief one may not know how to gauge his or her feelings and behaviour. One of the roles of the church is to help normalise this grief. To help those going through grief by being present. Of course, we all wish that we’d had a little bit longer with our loved ones.
The period of the seventeenth- and eighteenth- century Enlightenment combined with modernity has only served to consolidate the ideas of rationalisation, education, and science in our culture as well as a continual relegation and privatisation of faith. The western world with its postmodern ideas is especially confusing at times of bereavement where we are bombarded with a range of understandings and spiritualities.
There are no reference markers for those experiencing bereavement to gauge their grief against, and they may feel disoriented because there is nothing they can do to avoid the inevitable. This lack of control goes against every perceived ‘norm’ in our society. Once upon a time, Christianity held a special place as it was perceived to be based on objective truths. Now, however, Christianity is no longer the framework by which society is created. One can pick and choose from a plethora of relative truths, which lead to questions when faced with a bereavement.
Interest in the transcendent and that which gives meaning and purpose to life is at the heart of the Scottish Episcopal Church’s Funeral Rites:
If we live, we live to the Lord,
And if we die, we die to the Lord;
So then, whether we live or whether we die,
We are the Lord’s.
For to this end Christ died and lived again,
So that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
(Romans 14:8, 9)
We are reminded of the resurrection hope and this is shown in the practice of many churches to pray continually for those who have died – known as their ‘year’s mind.’ The saying, “Rest eternal grant to him/her O Lord. And let light perpetual shine upon him/her,”
shows how important this practice is. Acknowledging those who have gone before, while accepting that they, and we, are in God’s hands.
All Hallows Eve and All Saints are times for the community to come together and remember those saints who have trodden the Earth before us. To remind ourselves that although life may be transient, there is a great deal of good that comes out of our lives before death, and that death is not the end. Then comes Remembrance Sunday. Extended now to remember all those who have fought in all wars across the world, we will be brought together not only as a community in our own towns but across the nation to remind ourselves that they shall grow not old.
The ritual of a ceremony or service or funeral allows each of us to remember and resolve our grief in some way. The words contained therein may help or challenge people as they come to terms with what has happened. Funerals are a statement in which the Christian faith gives meaning to life and to its conclusion in death. The immediacy of one’s feelings and experience is a necessary part and path through which God’s love and forgiveness is portrayed. And that is the light at the end of the tunnel. God’s amazing and unbounded love for every single of us, regardless of where we’ve been or what we’ve done. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.