Counselling the Bereaved
After the funeral service is completed, the priest should turn immediately to the chief mourners,
offering them comfort and sympathy. This is not the time or place for detailed spiritual or theological arguments, but it
may well be a time for a brief word about our beliefs, and perhaps arranging to call on the chief mourner/s a few days later
to "see how you’re going" or "to see if there’s anything I can do for you". Generally such offers are well received,
and will usually provide a much better opportunity for spiritual discussion than trying to spend too long with them at the
funeral, when many of their friends and relatives will also be wishing to talk to them. This arrangement should be made at
the time of initial contact with the chief mourners, immediately after the ceremony. It is obviously essential to say a few
words at this time, but it is usually neither necessary nor desirable to spend too long with them then, or to go back to them
again at the funeral itself. Instead, having paid his respects and possibly arranged a later contact, the priest should make
himself available to any other members of the congregation who may wish to speak to him or ask him about the ceremony.
A Few Simple Suggestions
Our Funeral Service is designed to emphasise the positive aspects of death – the great
opportunities of life beyond the grave, the fact that it brings to an end to the sufferings and trials of mortal existence,
as well as the joy of re-union with those who have gone before. This is in sharp contrast with the funeral services of many
other denominations which emphasise the inevitability of death, separation from loved ones, sorrow and repentance. Such services
are still commonly held in these churches although sometimes an attempt is made to turn them into a less sorrowful occasion.
However, because of their theology this can only be achieved by ignoring the future and concentrating on celebrating the life
of the departed, a format that is often found in many non-Christian funerals, but which offers no real hope to the bereaved
or spiritual help of any sort.
Thus it is that our ceremony is fairly unique. As it stands it contains many references to our
teachings and it may well be that during the sermon the priest will have included a few more. Such a sermon should never be
long, and it is often useful to make it as personal as possible, at least in places. This may be done by mentioning the name
of the spouse, if applicable. Thus;
"Mary, you and Tom have walked through the journey of life together. It is as if you have travelled
side by side for …… years along a winding country road, through the shadow and the sunlight of life. But now you
have come to a fork in the road and Tom has taken a short cut, whilst you are left to continue along the original road. Yet
you know that eventually your path will meet up with his again and when it does, there will be Tom waiting to greet you. .
. . . ."
If there is no surviving spouse, a slightly different approach may be needed. Perhaps the first
partner died some years before and now the survivor has gone to join him/her. In this case it is as well to emphasise the
joy of their reunion. Again the principal mourners are addressed, in this situation possible a child or children; Thus;
"I’m sure you all miss your Mum, but remember that you have had her with you for many
years, whilst Tom has been alone waiting for her all that time. Now she has gone to join him again. Try to forget your own
sadness, by thinking of Tom’s joy at getting her back. And think how happy your Mum will be to be to find him waiting
to welcome her to that beautiful land.. . . .
If there is no close family, these sort of sentiments may need to be modified somewhat, or alternatively
the sermon may concentrate on what the afterlife has in store for the departed. Something like this may be appropriate;
"I realise that all of us will miss him, and wish he was still here with us, but really we are
being a little bit selfish. If we realised how much better off he is now, we would never wish him back on earth. Here we suffer
from many aches and pains; from heat and cold, from hunger and thirst. There he has none of these problems - he is free from
them all, freer than he could ever be on earth. It’s not as if we won’t ever see him again, for one thing is certain;
there will come a day when we will go to join him, and when that day comes, there will be Tom waiting to greet us. .
Alternatively we may talk about the body as an envelope and the spirit as the letter. Perhaps
we might put it like this:
"Don’t ever think that the one we loved is lying here in this coffin – this is just
the empty shell from which his spirit has long since departed. Here on earth, when we receive a letter from a friend we welcome
it, we take it out and read it and if it is important to us, we keep it carefully, but we throw away the empty envelope. The
body is just such an envelope, for the part that really matters, the letter within, that which made our loved one who he/she
really was; has long since been taken out. The one whom we loved has passed to a bright and happier land, where he has already
been welcomed by those who knew and loved him on earth. He is not here, and although we may miss him, we can be sure that
one day, when our time comes we will meet up with him once again
We may speak of rooms – just as Christ did – in St John 14; 2, when he said "In
My Fathers House there are many rooms. . . . I go to prepare a place for you." We may go on to discuss this subject;
"When you were both in the house together and she went into another room, you couldn’t
see her because the door had closed behind her, but you knew she was there and that if you wanted to see her, you only had
to follow her into that room. This is not so very different – you know she is there in that other room, and that one
day you will go through that same door to find her waiting for you there.. . . ."
It is as if our loved one has emigrated to another country, here on earth. When that happens,
everyone who knew the traveller in the past – friends, relatives and acquaintances - will be sure to gather round to
welcome and show him/her about the new land. So it is in the realm beyond the grave. But some may say "we can write to those
in other countries or even ring them on the phone to assure ourselves that they are well. We cannot contact the dead". This
is a subject that may need to be addressed with caution, especially if the congregation includes many who are not members
of our church. Perhaps the following suggestion may be helpful;
"It’s all very well to talk about meeting up with Tom when our time comes, but for many
of us that will be a long time away and we miss him. It’s all very well to liken it to someone who emigrates to America,
but we can ring America. We can’t ring those who have died. Not with a physical telephone, we can’t, but you know,
there used to be a song called "Telephone to Glory" which told how we could "talk to Jesus on that royal telephone". We can
talk to Jesus any day through prayer, and if we pray to Him for our loved ones, they will know about it. This is one way that
we can contract those who have gone before us, even now.. . ."
These and many similar sentiments can be expressed in a number of different ways and should
be, depending on the religious background of the deceased and chief mourners. But unless it is one who has long been a member
of our Church, and a congregation that understands our teachings it is usually best to avoid too many details, which will
tend to confuse them. At other times it is may be best to provide a range of information, but not too much detail unless
it is specifically sought and the same goes for counselling of the bereaved. Sympathy, compassion and a willingness to listen
is much more important than is any advanced theological knowledge, at least in the early stages of such a discussion.
On the other hand, those who are less affected by the loss, especially if they have never attended
our church before, may well be moved by the service and/or sermon to seek clarification of some point from the priest, or
even to dispute theologically with him. We should always avoid the latter immediately after the service because it is "inappropriate
for this solemn occasion" or "disrespectful to the departed". However, an alternative time for discussions should always be
arranged or at least offered, for we must always "be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason
of the hope that is in you. . ." On the other hand a genuine seeker is clearly to be encouraged and it may be needful for
a Priest to spend a little time with such a person even at the funeral. Again, however, if possible an appointment should
be arranged for another time. Funerals are occasions when quite a few people are likely to want to speak to the priest and
he should avoid spending too long with any one in particular, so that he may make contact with as many as possible.