How to bury a non-churchgoer (part 1)

Overgrown graveyard 3

I asked my former church leader, Canon Stephen Leeke, this question:

‘I have twice been asked to do funeral services for family members. These family members did not want a Christian funeral. I want to help the best way I can. What should I do?’

Stephen kindly responded.

As an Anglican minister I have conducted many funerals and since I retired I seem to be doing more! Many of them were for people who were not committed Christians. The Church of England funeral service is a great asset and has been carefully worded with some very useful features.

My principles:

  • All human life is precious and God loves us all.
  • I am not the judge and he knows all the thoughts of our hearts.
  • I am a minister of the gospel and a servant of Jesus Christ.
  • A funeral is primarily for the benefit of the living.
  • The deceased and his or her opinions should be respected but not be paramount.
  • Funerals don’t have to be funerals!
  • Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead’.

All human life is precious and God loves us all

This is one of the things a funeral service is saying implicitly. And it needs to be said. If I refuse to officiate because the deceased was not a ‘Christian’ (by my reckoning), what am I saying about God? He only loves the faithful? – He doesn’t. I am only interested in those who have joined up? – I ain’t! 

I was asked to preside at the funeral for one of my school teachers whom I hated. In preparing for the event I found that his children had a similar emotion! They said to me, ‘We don’t know what you are going to say.’ I said that I would not lie and nor would anyone know my opinion of him. I spoke about his good points and his achievements, balanced by the fact that not everyone liked him and he was far from perfect. The congregation thanked me afterwards for painting a true picture of the man they knew and mourned even though he was problematic. I was acutely aware that I am far from perfect too and that I am not the one who has to judge.

I am not the judge and God knows the thoughts of our hearts

It is given for man once to live and then comes judgement. Some people wouldn’t mention that word at a funeral but I am grateful that the CofE service does.

So suppose everyone says he was an atheist, but was he? And was he at the time of his death? I have known people come to a living faith in Christ hours before their death. And others who have said ‘Amen’ to prayers they heard when in a coma. So who is to tell what the dead person believed (or even what they wanted?) I just don’t know, so I rarely ask the family what the deceased believed or whether he was a churchgoer (does that guarantee a ticket?). But I have discovered that the Funeral Director often asks whether they want a ‘religious’ funeral or a non religious one! Relatives can demur at asking for ‘religious one’. It sounds a bit off-putting. But if they nevertheless still ‘want the vicar to do it,’ fine. Where there is faith there is hope.

Why violence has fallen

Stephen’s Pinker’s wonderful book The Better Angels of our Nature describes the fall in violence over thousands of years. You have to read the book if you don’t believe me, but I find it convincing.

Amazon

For example: we have a much less chance of being caught in a vendetta or blood feud than if we were all hunter-gatherers 5000 years ago. Crucifixion, cannibalism, the rack and the whip, these days, are deployed only in the world’s darkest holes, not in its finest civilisations. These days–in Europe–we worry about battery hens or foxhunting or whether a cow died well; in the past we worried about slave trading or state executions.

We still have evil and violence in the world but, per capita, per life, there is much less of it.

Wars, of course, are more problematic but even here the facts are surprising. No war has killed more than World War II, true, but World War I only ranks fifth or sixth in the list, out-cataclysmed by three Chinese wars and the Mongol conquests. If you adjust for world population at the time, neither of the 2oth century’s showpieces make the top ten.

So, violence has declined.

Why?

Pinker has five general reasons:

  1. ‘Leviathan’: by this he means, following Thomas Hobbes, government and the power of the state. If they punish the person who robs me, I don’t have to. And if they police the streets, it’s possible fewer people will want to rob me in the first place. Anarchy is bad for us. Government, though it brings its own problems, is preferred.
  2. ‘Gentle commerce’: the more we trade, the less we fight.
  3. Feminization: It does tend to be the chaps who do the violence; as women gain more influence, violence declines.1
  4. ‘The expanding circle’. The more we mix, and appreciate each other, and put ourselves in each other’s shoes, the less likely we are to fight. Maybe education works, too. Sounds soppy, but, hey.
  5. ‘The escalator of reason.’ This is about applying logic to problems rather than pride or prejudice.

I find this powerful stuff. Take your favourite dysfunctional country, and apply this lot, and things will get better. That is what is happening around the world, and why we now have–for example–the EU rather than the 100 years’ war.

But he missed the chilli out of the curry

I  find these arguments necessary and enlightening, but not sufficient. On my reading Steven Pinker is a wonderful scholar but he keeps dodging Jesus. Like many who boast the title ‘humanist’, he is happy talking about the Old Testament, about crusades, inquisitions, and witch-burning, but he refuses to look Christ–the not-retaliating, against the death penalty, blessed-are-the-peacemakers Christ–in the face. He underplays the role of radical Christians in (for example)  fighting slavery, inventing the whole idea of the NGO and being decisive in civil society, also known as being salt and light.

(This might not be his fault. If he is a behavioural psychologist he is destined to be shaped by his environment and anyone who spends as much time as he does with social scientists is bound to lose his grip in certain areas.)

It matters, though, even in a book so brilliant as his. Take drug addiction in the UK. ‘Leviathan’ gets druggies their own apartments, on methodone rather than heroin, with a care worker, using clean needles and with good free healthcare. It’s harm reduction and it’s loads better than nothing.

But I could dig up stories about hundreds of former addicts who are off drugs entirely, and embedded securely in loving networks of family, community and work. And they would attribute the change to Christ. Government ministers have visited centres in the UK and seen this and asked, ‘couldn’t you do it without the religious stuff?’. The answer, of course, is ‘feel free’. But when it comes to rescuing druggies, fishing the inebriated out of ditches, running day care for the elderly, the humanists honestly seem a bit thin on the ground. Perhaps his curry is lacking a dash of chilli.