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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Recognising the whole of life in funeral preparation

During my time as a Church of England minister, most of the funerals I conducted were for people I hadn’t known personally and who weren’t connected to the church. Meeting with the family to plan the funeral, it was natural for us to talk about all the different aspects of the person’s life. I was always keen to try to get below the surface and find out who they were, what had made them tick.  

In part this was because I would often be sharing the tribute on behalf of the family. Sometimes they would want to speak, and I would encourage that, but very often it was down to me. So I would ask questions and get them talking about their loved one – about their work or career, their family and upbringing, their life experiences, hobbies, and interests – and then piece what they shared together to create a narrative of their life. All the various parts of a multi-faceted life. 

I was always struck by how much there could be to a person that went unsaid and unknown, even among people who knew them well. We forget that before we meet someone a whole life has been lived. However much we know of them, there are experiences we can never fully appreciate because we weren’t part of that story then. And even when we know someone well, there are large parts of their lives in which we don’t feature. 

All of that seems fairly self-evident when we’re thinking about those who weren’t part of our church. But what about the people who were? How often do we remember the whole sweep of their lives in their funerals? 

We can easily forget that they’ve had a life outside of church – work, family, friends, interests – however involved they may have been in our communal life and ministries. We can often see people through one lens only – a church-shaped one. If the funeral congregation is largely church members, then we can perhaps miss out celebrating the way a person followed Christ in their everyday life, not just in the ministries and activities we were part of with them.  

The challenge comes, equally, if a tribute is being given by a family member who isn’t a Christian. I’ve conducted services of church members for whom their faith in Christ was key to who they were, and yet it hardly received a mention in the tribute. It’s helpful to get a sense of whether that’s likely to be the case ahead of the service and plan how it can be referenced elsewhere.  

During many funerals, I would often say there were two significant people at the centre of it – the person we were gathered to remember and lift to God, and the Lord Jesus Christ. And I would share why we could have hope in the face of death. When the deceased wasn’t a Christian, I could still point people to give thanks to God for their life. If they had been a Christian, it was an opportunity to show that the good news of Jesus was something they had believed in, and that their whole life had been shaped by their faith.  

In short, preparation is key if we’re to make the most of these special, if often challenging, services. It’s important to ask good questions and pay attention to what made this person who they were, as we seek to honour a person’s memory and honour the God who made them. In doing so, we can enable others to see that faith in Christ is for every part of our lives, not just what happens in church. 

Jules Gadsby
Church Engagement Specialist

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