Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Non-Religious Funerals

A while ago I mentioned that I'd been in conversation with a local Funeral Directors about doing non-religious funerals. I may also have mentioned the stir this caused in some circles around church. It seemed rather odd to me at the time that I was almost expected by some to turn down such invitations simply because they were non-religious and that was outside the parameters of my job.

Anyway, some people understood my reasoning and other didn't, and that's okay. even at the time it wouldn't have prevented me from taking an opportunity should fit have arisen.

Well, this last week I had two opportunities to serve families through doing a non-religious funeral. One turned out to be less than non-religious, with prayers and a hymn. The other was most definitely non-religious. And this raises an interesting point: What exactly do people mean by non-religious? For some it is quite clear that they do not want faith or God mentioned at all. For someone like me, that was quite demanding, and I had to work hard on preparing a positive, hopeful funeral that didn't include all the usual stuff. But I did it for the simple reason that even though they didn't want anything religious, I could still pray for them. I din't keep my identity secret, so they knew my faith framework, but I did as they asked and didn't mention God at all.

Did I let him down? Did I somehow fail to acknowledge Jesus? You might think so, but I don't. I believe I honoured him by serving he family in the way they wanted and not in the way I wanted. Just because God is not mentioned it doesn't mean he is neither present nor at work. Think of Esther's story.

So what have I learnt form these two experiences. Well first of all, non-religious doesn't always mean what we think it means. Second, it can be so easy simply to go through the standard process of a funeral without much thought. Sad to say that seems to happen a lot. I don't have a one-size fits all funeral. Yes, I use the same payers, follow a similar pattern and share the same basic message from the standard texts. But I always try to personalise what I do. Over the years I've developed a range of reflections of key passages, and I try to reflect on the passage in the context of the family and friends before me in the chapel or church.

My third lesson is that it is hard to plan a funeral that takes you out of your comfort zone of prayers and readings. These things so easily become the padding. Strip them away and you are left with very little if you can't improvise and think outside a religious box.

Being a minister who serves the community is not about imposing my faith upon them, but seeking to draw their faith out as I share the comfort and love of God with them as the opportunity aries. Maybe I even managed to do that as I sensitively lead my first non-religious funeral. Who knows. At least the door was open.


Stowey said...

Interested to read your comments. Have you done any more funerals? I have been taking funerals for 18months now and find it fascinating and very rewarding. Slightly like you I put aside my own religion to serve the bereaved as best I can. Often people have said 'non religious' to the undertaker and then decide that they want to pray, or sing a hymn. Almost always the family prepare for the funeral mindful of what their lost loved one would have liked and sometimes say things like they 'know he will be watching over them'.

I have a blog which is more an archive of readings than anything else. Feel free to take what you want, it's at

Richard Pool said...

Thanks for the comment, I'll certainly have a look at your blog. Any help always appreciated!

So far this year, 2013, I've just over thirty funerals. Most have been "religious" but some have been "non-religious". Like you, I find that "non-religious" doesn't necessarily mean without God. I've also found that letting people know that going to church isn't a prerequisite for prayers being said and that including prayers can be helpful for some of the mourners who have a more spiritual expectation.