I prepared and recorded this episode in the midst of end-of-life-care and funerals for three prominent parishioners (and committed Christians). May their memory be eternal! There’s a lot I would like to have added to it (and some things I probably should have said differently), but it’s a start. You can add your thoughts and observations on doing funerals (and end of life care) well in the comments section. – Fr Anthony
On Funerals (Ancient Faith Radio)
Fr. Anthony Perkins, 28 July 2016
In this episode, Fr. Anthony talks about why funerals require extra attention, some of the challenges (both expected and unexpected) that they bring, and shares some lessons on bringing grace to the experience. He also shares a (satirical) warning about the danger of preaching politics.
On death and funerals.
Better, more thorough coverage:
- AFR Podcast. A Christian Ending: Rediscovering Ancient Christian Burial Customs for the Modern World
- 2006 St Vladimir’s Seminary Liturgical Institute of Music and Pastoral Practice
- Long discussions on the topic with your mentors. This is by far the best source (Fr. Death!)
Funerals and weddings are the places where the most curve balls get thrown. Why?
- Cultural expectations for a funeral have little in common with what we offer (Venn diagram? List some things; cremation, eulogy, readings, closed casket)
- Non-Orthodox family members – strangers to you and Orthodoxy – are a large part of the planning team
- Non-Orthodox and un-Churched are there to be witnessed to
- But more difficult than weddings because
- They are rarely planned in advance
- People are under stress and are tempted to see you and Orthodox ritual as an enemy – or as irrelevant (or as a nationalist/cultural construct)
- The service is largely incomprehensible
- First funeral? Many since then. Still struggle.
- I’ve found it – and especially the funeral homily – to be the most challenging thing I do on a regular basis
- I’m going to share my approach and some lessons learned, but as always, YMMV!
High inside pitches.
- Actually, this one is easy.
- Requests for changes to services, Orthodoxy, cemetery policy,
- Closed casket. Big deal to some people.
- Random outbursts during service.
- Dysfunctional families.
- Members? Orthodox? Paid up? (Argh!!!)
- To include missing cremains.
- Old priest;
- “Real (ethnic) funeral”
- Priest friend/family member; chanter friend/family member
- Green funerals. [Plug Deacon J. Mark Barna, A Christian Ending: A Handbook For Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition)
- Mercy meals (fasting).
Worst Case Scenarios: Morning phone call from the funeral director.
- Children, young parents, etc. Thank God, this is not so common.
- Much more common: complete stranger. Why is this hard?
Best Case Scenario:
- Some combination of devout, well-prepared, Orthodox family. Life in the sacraments. You were able to do all the sacraments, prayers, and preparation for the dying and their family and friends.
Our goal as pastors is to foster a culture that makes the “best case scenario” the norm.
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Back to funerals:
- Remember: you are not alone!
- Your funeral director is your ally
- Your bishop is your ally
- Your parish board is your ally
- Hospice, nursing homes, and even hospitals are your allies
- Other priests – and especially your predecessors and mentors – are your allies
- Preparing for the death or parishioners
- Keep a good list of shut-ins etc. and routinize your visitation schedule them. Encourage people to share names and needs.
- Create a funeral ministry, if possible.
- Keep expectations realistic.
- Set aside most everything for emergency calls (go bag)!!!
- Describe what is going on spiritually for the person and what they can do for them (like hospice does for the bodily stuff)
- Take advantage of Orthodox prayers, sacraments, psalmody, and scripture. These are familiar and carve out a pattern and space of order, predictability, and comfort for the dying and the grieving.
- DON’T SAY ANYTHING STUPID. “I am so sorry” is best.
- Guilt is NOT your ally. If you made mistakes, learn from them, apologize and clean up your mess, go to confession, and move on. Stuff is going to happen.
- For the Services
- If you are new, research the history and expectations of the parish etc.; regardless, be intentional about getting moving it to the place you believe would be healthiest (Liturgies? Litya’s? Psalter? Green? Church wakes? English?).
- Put a text (preferably, one with music in traditions where that is possible) of the service in everyone’s hands (and if you have control over the content of the service, make sure that the service is coherent).
- Make sure the service is done well; not rushed; solemn, respectful, and with gravity.
- Preach Christ crucified – and resurrected. The person’s life must be presented within that context. Toll booths? Boogie man? Babies with wings? Guilt trips? Condemning and anathematizing the heterodox? Maybe not. Try to come up with a homily specifically for that funeral (only read from a book of funeral homilies if you are really bad at this – protect against the worst case scenario!)
- Provide clear instructions about audience participation (up, down, line up, communion).
- Build rapport and trust with the grieving. Make yourself and the parish available to the grieving. By the end, they should know that this is a place that deals with real problems in a powerful, real, and meaningful way.
- Attend the mercy meal. Be present. Be friendly. Be humble. Listen. Plant seeds with love, not arguments.
- For after the Burial
- Schedule the 40 day memorial (try to make this routine). Add their name to your lists.
- Grief ministry (plug Griefshare.org)
- Hotwash: lessons learned. Clean up messes. Thank people.
Regardless of whether you find these suggestions useful, I encourage you to take this ministry seriously – and especially that you help the laity step-up their game (they want to and are already doing much of what is needed – God bless them! – it may well just take broadening the mandate).
It’s real, the Gospel in its most raw and necessary setting. We need to do it well. Plant seeds. Harvest. Be the priest God ordained you to be.