Much of what we have said about ‘suffering & tragedy’ applies more specifically to bereavement. Once again Christianity possesses a particular understanding of death and bereavement and encourages particular responses to it. What follows is only a brief summary of our understanding and approach.
Abbey on Death & Bereavement
Living well & Dying well
Christians believe that, in order to live truly in this world for the world to come, a dying and rising is essential. We cannot over-emphasise how crucial Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension is in respect of God’s redeeming purposes for the whole of creation. And to enter into all of this requires a dying and rising on our part, and a life of habitually dying to our old nature in order to live according to the new nature that is the true humanity in Jesus. Knowing and experiencing this enables us to view death appropriately. On the one hand we should be angered and affronted by death’s very presence in God’s creation – we ought never to regard it as natural or acceptable. That is why expressions of pain, and even anger on the part of those who are dying and those who are mourning, is appropriate. On the other hand we should be assured that death is a defeated enemy that will one day die itself – a time will come when there will be no more dying because Jesus has overcome death and death’s domain. That is why expressions of hope and faith are also appropriate. In all of this it is important that we neither deny nor sentimentalise death by imagining that it is no big deal.
All of which brings us to the vexed matter of ‘life after death.’ It is not uncommon for people to talk about this and to have their own ideas concerning it. People are intrigued to know ‘what’s on the other side’, and so they may consult mediums or read stories by people who claim to have had ‘near death experiences.’ Even within the churches a great variety of ideas will be found, some of them contradictory. For example, some people will have a vague notion that the world has a start, middle and an end, with history travelling in a linear fashion. Other people will hold to the notion of reincarnation and a cyclical worldview where everything just keeps going round and round. Some people seem to manage to blend these ideas. Moreover, and perhaps as a safety valve, we hear a lot of joking and mocking and sentimentalism surrounding the reality of death. Sadly, the Church has encouraged or supported some such notions by teaching a caricature ‘life after death’ story, often at funeral services.
‘Life after Life after death’
The main thing is this: Christianity is not about ‘life after death’; especially if this depicts life in the material world as inherently evil, from which the disembodied soul must escape to be at rest with God in an immaterial heaven. It is that kind of misrepresentation that leads to confusion, to slushy sentimentality, to dismissive humour and to a world-denying attitude that ultimately makes nonsense of creation, incarnation and resurrection. The truth is far more affirming of this life, far more consoling when faced with death, and far more exciting in respect of the life that is to come. Christianity, then, is about ‘life after, life after death.’ Whatever condition we may be in immediately after death and before God fully establishes the New Creation (Scripture gives us very little to go on here, so we need to be especially careful about speculation), it is only a temporary condition before the real finale. God will declare the New Creation in which all those who belong to Jesus will receive their resurrection bodies and begin to exercise their role as God’s image-bearing royal priesthood for the flourishing of the cosmos to the glory of God. As a result, everything that is consistent with God’s righteousness, justice, truth and love will be affirmed and enhanced; and everything that is set against God and that would distort humanity and creation will be destroyed. Meanwhile we are called to anticipate that reality in this world now; to live according to it; and to point others towards it. We believe that this context will transform the way we live, the way we prepare for death and the way we respond to death.
Responses to Death and Bereavement
Some particular circumstances
The framework that we offer above provides important general information about how we understand and respond to suffering and tragedy, to death and bereavement. No matter the particularities of such encounters; and these are almost infinite in their combinations, we believe that it is important to place individual circumstances within this framework for a Christian perspective. It is also the case that we cannot offer detailed analysis of every circumstance that may face people, but we offer the following brief comments for direction.
Death confronts us in a variety of ways: still-birth, death of an infant/child, death of a spouse/partner, death of a sibling, death of a parent, death of a close friend, sudden death (suicide, accident) or journeying with someone who is dying (terminal illness, euthanasia). Each of these is traumatic and nobody can say, “I know how you feel”, because each person’s grieving is necessarily unique. What we can say is, “I will be with you”, for that is our calling. We can and should support each other in prayer and consolation, with time and (if appropriate) with material assistance. Since we are all parts of the Body of Christ, we must expect to feel one another’s pain, share the hurt and suffer the loss. As we do this together we grow in sensitivity, compassion, patience, generosity and love. We do not offer neat answers or a quick fix; these are illusions, instead we offer authentic community as a context for healing. And since we are part of the long tradition of the Church we have an accumulated suffering and wisdom which can inform our own understanding and response.
We therefore encourage you to build your connection with us when things are going well so that you will be prepared for difficult times and so that you will be surrounded by a community of people who truly know, love and care for you.
If you are suffering the trauma of death and bereavement, and would value the opportunity to talk through your painful situation, please feel free to contact us and we will try our best to serve you in a caring and responsible way.
Funeral Arrangements & Services
It will usually be the case that a family will approach one of the many excellent funeral directors in the country. They have all the information at their fingertips to advise on legal requirements and general arrangements. They work closely with churches and clergy of all traditions and are sensitive to the particular requirements of each. We cannot speak highly enough of their expertise and service. So when you approach one of the funeral directors you can immediately indicate your desire to have Abbey involvement. The funeral director will contact Abbey to enquire about the possibility and to confirm the essential matters of date and time. Some families who are familiar with the congregation or members may actually contact Abbey themselves to begin plans.
Arranging a funeral
Once the identity of the deceased, the proposed date and time of the service have been established and agreed between the family, the church and the funeral director, a process will begin. The Minister will likely speak with a family representative by telephone to arrange to meet in person. This meeting will normally take place in one of the family homes. Because funerals in Ireland usually occur within a few days; those days can be fraught with making arrangements, meeting people, signing documents and receiving peoples’ condolences. Families often find themselves functioning on automatic and hardly have time to reflect upon their own loss and grief. Nevertheless we would encourage you to make space to meet with the Minister precisely to bring a moment of prayerful reflection into the proceedings. It also provides an opportunity to prepare a fitting service that is personal rather than generic. For example, members of the family may wish to participate by reading, singing, playing music, leading prayers or delivering a tribute. The Minister will certainly want to prepare the liturgy specifically. Often families find this time with the Minister reassuring and helpful.
These days there is a range of options in terms of funeral services. Families may choose burial or cremation. Some people choose to leave their body to science, and this has its own set of arrangements. Even within the ‘traditional’ form of burial there are choices to be made in respect of graveyards, plots, coffins, flowers and so on. All of these options are directed by laws and by-laws which the funeral director can advise on. Some families want either the whole service or a short service at the family home (or in the ‘funeral home’) before proceeding to the crematorium or cemetery, whilst others want a full service in the church. As a guide, a funeral service lasts about thirty minutes, but can be quite a bit shorter depending on the circumstances. In the event of the death occurring in hospital (for example, if a baby has died) or in a nursing home (where an elderly person has resided), the service may be conducted within the confines of the chapel. Regardless of the circumstances, we are always open to working with the family to meet their needs.
The funeral service
On the day of the funeral, assuming it is taking place in Abbey Church, people will gather approximately half an hour before the agreed time. If the family does not have the capacity to supply their own Orders of Services sheets, we are more than happy to design and supply these. We will usually have at least one member in attendance at the main door to assist with any matters. Seats will be reserved for the immediate family, who will be escorted there just before the service begins. Unless otherwise arranged, the Minister will conduct the service and incorporate other participants as agreed. At the end of the service the family may, if they wish, stand in the vestibule or doorway to meet the congregants as they exit.
The service will normally consist of: Call to Worship, hymns, prayers, bible readings, a tribute and short address. Certain poems, readings, pieces of music (sung or played – live or recorded) may also be included. Every effort will be made to ensure that the service is personal and reverent, with all of the details being agreed beforehand. As with every worship service, the Minister has the final word on the form and content of the funeral service. He has the right and responsibility to refuse requests if he deems these to be inappropriate or unacceptable, but this would be exceptional.
Funerals can be costly affairs and this can place a burden on families. We regard a funeral service as an act of worship, thanksgiving and consolation, so we do not impose additional costs beyond those areas where we are under obligation. The services of the Minister are free of charge – funeral directors do have a tariff for Ministers, but we would emphasise that this is purely voluntary and we will not be seeking or expecting remuneration. There is no cost for using the building or for the supply of Orders of Service, should you wish to make a contribution you are free to do so, but again it is purely voluntary. The only item that does have payment is that of the organist. If an organist is required (and our own organist will normally be approached first in respect of availability), the standard fee is set by a national body representing organists and church musicians. The funeral director will have the fees tariff.
We have already mentioned that families are often so busy making funeral arrangements that they have very little time or energy to reflect on what has happened. This is especially so when the death has been unexpected. It may be days or even weeks after the funeral before the full force of grief is actually felt. Even if the family has been prepared for the loss and processed this in some measure, it is likely that waves of grief will come and go throughout the bereavement process. Often families handle this within the family by sharing their experiences, their loss and their concerns. Sometimes there is less of a family network available to people or the family is actually the last place of comfort for some. In the case of particular tragedy: the death of an infant, suicide or accident, specialist help may be required. The Minister is available to offer counselling and support and, if the situation requires it, he can advise on professional assistance. For example, we have contact with a range of Christian counselling services (officially approved), and we maintain close contact with the chaplaincy services of hospitals, schools, colleges and prisons. Specifically, we work with the Rotunda Maternity Hospital to provide annual services for families who have suffered the loss of their baby; and we also work with the Irish Transplant Association in their annual service of commemoration.