Sunday, December 5, 2010


Saturday was the funeral of a dearly beloved member of our congregation, Daphne Archer. Daphne was a spry 84 year old who loved to ring the church bell and tell anyone in ear shot what's-what. She had a thick accent betraying her Barbados roots, and loved to talk. She was surprisingly strong for her age, so it was a surprise when she died suddenly at home.

Everyone who thinks of Daphne thinks of her faithfulness, to family, to her work, and (naturally) to the church as well. So mother church returned the favour with a proper Anglican send-off. Funeral Mass and grave-side committal with lots of music and some high-church touches she would have appreciated.

I arranged the chairs "choir-style" in the church, rows facing each other across the nave. This has several advantages for a funeral. For one thing, people can see everything (particularly the coffin). Second, it provides more place for the coffin, whereas in many churches the chancel or crossing gets a little crowded when you put a casket in the space and gives the impression of imbalance. Third, because people are facing each other (across the casket, no less), it feels very warm.

The casket was processed into the centre of the space (sacred ministers leading the way). The Pascal Candle burned proudly by the her head. Moving liturgically-east is the ambo and then the altar. The sacred ministers sat behind the altar an bend set on a platform one step high. Because we had to accommodate so many (112), we put more chair rows on the open end of the rectangle, but these were angled in at 45 degrees. It was a nice, balance, comfortable affect over all.

When the casket first arrived I coordinated a few details with the funeral director. Then I met the body at the hearse and escorted it in while saying some prayers and psalms to the church lounge for a time of visitation.

I feel strongly, for myself, that I want to see the actual body of every person I bury. Part of this comes from the old-fashioned notion that you, as the presiding minister of the burial, are responsible for making sure the correct body is being buried. These days funeral homes rarely make that kind of mistake anymore, but it's not totally unheard of.

But the real reason I want to see the body is more existential or spiritual in character. One of the roles of the priest is to be the "secret keeper" for the congregation. And if the ceremony has a closed casket, then you have established a certain mystery or secret in the community. It's not a bad thing, but it is a power thing. The closed casket has a kind of gravity and power that functions. By peering into that mystery, you become a kind of witness on behalf of the community. I can assure anyone that we buried Daphne because I saw here, with my own eyes.

That said, this kind of approach isn't necessary. I certainly wouldn't tell a colleague or student that they must or even should view the body, merely that it is something to consider in developing one's pastoral ministry around death.

When I told the Funeral Director that I wanted to the see the body, he advised me against it. "I recommend that you remember her the way she was." That's funeral parlor code for, "It isn't pretty." I assured him that I had seen many dead bodies, even attended an autopsy once, and that I was okay with whatever might be in there. He was looking at my very straight... no doubt trying to assess what sort of man I am. He became a little more direct. "She had been dead a long time." "Yes," I said, "I realize that. But I feel that it is my responsibility to look at her before the funeral." Realizing that I was not to be dissuaded, the Funeral Director said that he would leave this up to the family.

That was fine with me. In fact, I had mentioned my desire to view the body during my planning meeting with the family. So they quickly gave permission without hesitation.

We created some privacy by closing the doors to the lounge. Then the Funeral Director opened the casket. It was Daphne, of course. And I could see that they had placed a prayerbook in with her. I would have asked them to place one inside if it hadn't been there already.

I only needed to give her a solid look, then I asked them to close it again. After that they opened the doors to the lounge and people came in to pay their respects. When it was time for the service itself, I met the coffin and the back of the church (which is also where the lounge is) and led the pall bearers down the aisle.

There were three sacred ministers for the service; myself, Father Mark from St. Thomas', and Rev'd Catherine, a Deacon who is also a Theological Intern assigned to be one of my students. The service itself was pretty much straight out of the BAS, with only a few minor variations. After a reading from Revelations and the singing of Psalm 23 and the Gospel reading ("I am the Good Shepherd"), a member of Daphne's family gave the Eulogy.

Eulogies at funerals are tricky. Many families wish to have a great many people come up and praise the deceased. But in my experience, it is far better to limit the number of eulogies. The problem with eulogies are, first off, that most people that give them aren't actually experienced with public speaking and the second problem is that eulogies often make a fond remembrance of the deceased, but don't really bring religion much into it. Susan, the eulogist for Daphne, however, was actually strong on both counts. She was a good speaker with a well written text, and she did bring in some nice spiritual content. It was one of the better funeral Eulogies I've ever heard, in fact, and I've heard quite a few!

My turn, next. The congregation wanted to applaud Susan, but restrained themselves. I understand their impulse to thank her, so I began my sermon by saying, "Let the people say, 'Amen.'" This being a mostly black congregation, I got an immediate and heart-felt "Amen!" Then I launched into my sermon.

A number of people have told that it was an excellent sermon. Certainly I felt "in the groove." It was mostly improvised based on a couple of land marks I knew I wanted to hit. But as I went along new rhetorical and theological avenues opened up to me. This is the most satisfying part of preaching extemporaneously, when you both know where you are going, are feeling your way to that place without labouring, and are also superbly aware that your congregation is with you all the way. I could feel the people with me. I looked at those I knew well, my parishioners, and I could tell they were listening with close attention. I looked at the people visiting and I could see them nodding and listening, as well. I even got a few muttered, "Amens" and "That's rights" that assured me that I was on the right track. I began by talking about Daphne's faithfulness and how it shows us a glimpse of God's faithfulness. But my real zinger was when when I said, "With Daphne, the conversation never stopped." Lots of nods. "She couldn't stop talking to us because she loved us." Then I talked about how with God, the conversation also continues, even through death. I felt great about that sermon, but the end of it my voice, already strained from a cold and several days of non-stop talking, was pretty much gone completely.

Luckily, I had already asked Mark to celebrate the Eucharist. Catherine and I deaconed for him. As Betsy said, "Mark gives a good Mass." Indeed, he was articulate in both word and gesture. Nice and clear and rich without being fussy at all. Perfect. It was also rewarding for me to note how my training of Catherine had paid off with her assisting another priest at the altar with high skill.

Many more people came up for communion than I expected. And after "the dishes were done," we had a liturgical dance piece done by one of Daphne's cousins. Originally the family had suggested we play the music for this dance over the speakers, but with Eric on piano and our cantor as vocal it was a far richer experience. The composition they chose started with Amazing Grace, but then added a few verses in a related, but different, melody composed by Chris Tomlin.

We took our places for the Commendation and listened the choir sing a Russian setting of the Kontakion ("Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints..."). More prayers, then we led the body out of the church. Fr. Mark and Catherine said their goodbyes. We shared a few comments of the sort priests and deacons share. "Good sermon." "Very nice sung preface." Thanks all around. I got a ride with the Funeral Director, and we had a nice talk on the way to the cemetery.

The worker at the Cemetery told me that although he was Roman Catholic, he had been to my church a few times as part of some ecumenical work he was doing at the time. It's a small world.

It was cold and very windy at the grave. They lowered the coffin and I said the committal service, which is blessedly brief. The Funeral Director kept trying to get me to use the little vial of sand he had for the ceremonial tossing of dirt on the grave. White sand. I'm not sure what that has to do with death. Dirt. A handful of dirt has a substance that is more than mere metaphor. We are actually burying this woman, not just making a gesture towards it.

While we sang favourite hymns from hymn sheets my music minister had helpfully prepared ahead of time, the workers prepared the grave and then people took turns with a real shovel putting real dirt on top of the coffin. When people had taken enough turns, a backhoe was brought in to complete the burial. By this time I was quite cold despite the Capa Negra (black cope) I borrowed from Fr. Mark. Capa Negras are a really great vestment to have, I must get one if I keep doing funerals in winter! The family, like Daphne, were from Barbados, and had no intention of leaving the grave until it was completely filled in. I appreciate this. In fact, I make it my custom to stay behind at committals until the grave it completely filled even when the family has gone on to the reception.

By this time my voice was completely shot. I sounded like a frog that had swallowed gravel. Nonetheless, I made a brief appearance at the reception and then accepted a ride from one of the funeral home's drivers. Before we parted company, the Funeral Director shook my hand and said, "You're a good man." I flashed back to his evaluative gaze a few hours before. Apparently I had passed his test.

As I relaxed on the car ride home I thanked my lucky stars, or perhaps God, that I had scheduled one of my parishioners to preach on Sunday many weeks before Daphne's death. Surely I could have preached today, but in all honesty I didn't have a lot left to give, and Brendan's sermon was excellent.

After I got home I spent some time with Betsy and Henry and baked up 200 chocolate chip cookies for the church's bake sale. Yeah, 200! Supper, a few pages of a Patrick O'Brien novel set in the 19th Century English Navy, then sleep. Blessed sleep. I dreamed about church, but they weren't anxious dreams. Just me working on different projects with different people. I would have rather dreamed of being on a Frigate in Indian Ocean chasing a French Squadron, but one doesn't get to choose one's dreams!

Woke up this morning feeling pretty good. Church went well--and now I'm going home to watch football!



Jamie & Lauren said...

Hey Tay,
Love reading your about your thoughts and life, especially love being able to see what life as a priest is like. I'm currently meeting with my priest for discernment. Your blog is one of my favorites.

Felicity Pickup said...

Thank you Tay! Reading your account almost made up for not being able to be there(because I had commitments at Daphne's "evensong church"). Bittersweet to hear a bit more about the circumstances of Daphne's death.

You don't have funeral cloak!?
And clergy are expected to supply such themselves? Shocking revelation

Our pews looked a bit empty at Sunday Evensong last night, without Daphne and Daphne's regal hat up front on the south side of the nave.

Daphne lived a few blocks further from COTM than I do. I marvelled that she, 15 years older than me, still made it up to COTM every Sunday morning and at least half-an-hour earlier. She cared about her own worshipping community enough to do that, instead of going somewhere easier for her to get to!