I've been to quite a few funerals lately. Not just for 'old' people but some have been for friends who have died earlier than one might expect: accidents, illness, long-term health issues that took a turn for the worse.
Some funerals have been in funeral homes – that always strikes me as an odd euphemism, only slightly better than 'funeral parlour'. These services are often called a 'Celebration of Life' and are held in the calm surrounds of a large auditorium tastefully decorated in bland, neutral colours.
Mourners sit on sternly upright chairs or long benches, in orderly rows. A professional celebrant and family members share happy memories of the recently deceased. If there is a coffin it is decorated with masses of beautiful flowers and symbols from the person's life.
Photo displays, musical performances, poetry readings, tall tales and true of family life and adventures all paint a picture of a wonderful person who was much loved and who will be sadly missed.
I was at one celebration service recently where a freshly made cappuccino and a novel were brought in and placed on the coffin, a farewell gift from the café where the late departed sat each week, reading a book and having a coffee or two and a chat.
For those without any family a funeral can be really sad and depressing. A handful of mourners and a plain, unadorned coffin. No flowers or candles. No songs, just anonymous muzack filling the space with a few token words bidding farewell.
Funerals in such places can be a bit bleak. A life is celebrated, but that's all there is. It's over. That's it. The end. A person has died, forever, and there is nothing more to come. I usually leave such a funeral service feeling a bit low.
On the other hand ...
Our church choir recently sang at the funeral service for an elderly member of our congregation. This man had served the Lord for about 70 years, as chorister, server, warden, and life had not always been easy for him. But he served faithfully and at the funeral we sang the ancient canticle Nunc Dimittis (rough translation: Lord, now let me go.). This is the prayer of Simeon, who is mentioned in Luke chapter 2 verses 29–32.
Not a lot is known about Simeon. Luke says,
He was an upright man, devoted to the service of God, living in expectation of the 'salvation of Israel'. His heart was open to the Holy Spirit, and it had been revealed to him that he would not die before he saw the Lord's Christ.
He was led to go to the temple where Jesus' parents had brought the child Jesus. Simeon prays,
At last, Lord, you can dismiss your servant in peace, as you promised! For with my own eyes I have seen your salvation which you have made ready for every people – a light to show truth to the Gentiles and bring glory to your people Israel. J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)
Simeon knows his time is up but he also knows where he is going. He is ready to go 'home'. God's promise is fulfilled.
This prayer seemed very appropriate for a funeral service, not just honouring a faithful servant but acknowledging that we knew that at the last he had an eternal home. Death is not the end.
A Christian funeral can be a real celebration. Sad, certainly and not without much grief and mourning for the loss. A church ceremony can be utterly plain, with nothing more than prayers, a hymn, and perhaps a cuppa afterwards. Or maybe not.
It can certainly include elaborate photo presentations, eulogies, songs, humour, memories and shared stories of family life, a flower-bedecked coffin.
But a Christian funeral always has a joyful edge. It is never without the hope of a life to come. We may 'depart in peace'. Death ain't the end!
Sheelagh Wegman is production editor for the Tasmanian Anglican bi-monthly magazine and does a broad range of freelance editing. She belongs to St David's Cathedral in Hobart and lives with husband Kees in bushland on the foothills of Mt Wellington.
Sheelagh Wegman's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/sheelagh-wegman.html