Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reflections - The Funeral Liturgy

I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever believes in me in me will never die…  St. John 11:26
            Since September I have used this space to explore the Sacraments of the church: Baptism and Eucharist; and Sacramental living.  Everything we do can be a Sacramental experience for us or for others.  Rooted in Baptism and strengthened and empowered through Holy Communion we are sent out into the world to be vessels of Christ’s Sacramental presence.  And we don’t have to “try” to do this.  It happens through the power of the Holy Spirit.  As we live our lives faithfully and responsibility the Spirit reaches out to others through us, without our even being aware of it at times.  Everything from being kind to others, to not being greedy and irritable when shopping to being honest and open to others can be a sacramental experience; from sitting with a friend and supporting that person in their loss or grief, to opening a door for someone who is disabled are sacramental experiences for us and for others.
            I also spoke about how various liturgies of the church help us to focus these experiences – to recognize them and acknowledge them: Confession and Forgiveness (corporate or individual), healing services including anointing with oil (corporate or individual) and a liturgy of commendation of the dying can all help us recognize God’s presence in our lives and empower and strengthen us in our faith.  This brings me to a very important liturgy – the Burial of the Dead or the Funeral liturgy. 
            The Funeral liturgy is a unique liturgy of the church as it is the only liturgy which really has two foci – 1. The celebration of a life lived and completed in Christ - the celebration that the deceased is now resting in the arms of Christ into whom he/she was baptized; and 2. The comforting of the grieving.  One does not negate the other.  I have heard well-meaning people admonish family members for being “too” demonstrative in their grief because now the loved one is “now in heaven.”  As true as the last part of that statement may be, nevertheless, the expression of grief is completely appropriate and is an important and healthy way to deal with loss.  The death of a loved one is a loss – there is no denying this.  Even if he/she is in heaven, they are no longer with us and we are going to miss them.  The funeral liturgy is designed to encourage healthy grieving by bringing closure to a relationship.  Often the funeral liturgy is the beginning of a process of grief which may take a long time.  This is natural, it can be different for different people as we all grieve in our own ways. I do want to add that if ever you feel that the grief is overwhelming I would encourage you to speak to someone (a friend, counselor or pastor) to help you verbalize it, instead of holding it in. 
            The liturgy itself is rooted in Baptism – the casket may be draped with a pall, a large white cloth covering which reminds us of the white robes which may be used to clothe the newly baptized and which covers the chalice for communion.  Many of the prayers have Baptismal references and at the committal includes the sign of the cross is traced in the air or drawn in dirt or sand to reminds us of the sign of the cross which is drawn in oil on our foreheads at baptism.  Other parts of the service will celebrate the life of the deceased and help us remember him/her and what they have meant to us.  The funeral helps us accept the loss and then moves us back into our daily lives having brought some form of closure to the loss.
I have been asked about the appropriateness of celebrating Holy Communion at funerals.  Holy Communion may be celebrated at a funeral.  This is very appropriate for those who die in the Lord and it can be a gift to their loved ones, as the formal experience of Christ’s presence in the Sacrament can be a very comforting experience.  Sometimes, though, it is not desired or appropriate and this is ok too.  There are many options that the funeral liturgy provides – from the choice of venue (church or funeral home), the choice of lessons, the choice of memories to be shared, hymns to be sung, communion or no communion and so on.  It can be difficult for the family to make some of these choices and to this end I have created a Funeral Liturgy checklist that you may complete and put on file here at the church.  This gives you the opportunity to make some of these choices yourself and can be a gift to your family as well.  I have filled one out myself and if you would like a copy I will be happy to send it to you, we can discuss it and I can put it on file in the church office.  (Note: this is not to duplicate the funeral pre-arrangements that can be done through the Funeral Home; nor is it a duplication of an Advanced Directive – these are also important and should be done.  But this focuses completely and solely on the funeral liturgy itself).
We do not always like to think about death – our own or the deaths of those whom we love.  But death will come to us all sooner or later.  The promise of the Gospel is that Christ is with us through the experience of death and will bring us home to live in God’s loving arms forever; and that through Christ God is present with us as we mourn and grieve.  And nothing can separate us from God’s love through Christ Jesus our Lord.

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