Jeremy Brookes writes…
‘The family has asked if you can do it, Vicar. I’m sorry – they’re not at all religious, but they seemed to think it was the right thing’.
This phone conversation that I had with a local funeral director recently is similar to conversations that vicars have with funeral directors all over the country. Often, the latter are embarrassed to have to ask – sometimes I get the sense that funeral directors feel that they shouldn’t be bothering the vicar unless the family or the loved one who has died has a close connection to the church. You need to be ‘religious’ to qualify.
Families can also feel slightly awkward about asking for the vicar – if neither they nor their family member who has died have been a church-goer, it is easy to wonder if you have any right to ask for the clergy to get involved. However, there is an instinctive feeling in many people that having a vicar take the funeral is ‘the right way to go’.
I think this instinct is entirely right. The Church of England is set up so that the whole country is carved up into parishes and every person resident in England lives in a particular person’s parish. That means that they can use the priest of that parish to christen their children, marry them, and at the end, conduct their funeral services. The traditional ministry of hatch, match and despatch. And in past times, this would have happened all of the time. Nowadays, people have much more choice and a church funeral is one amongst others.
However, it worries me that people feel that they cannot make a choice for a Church of England funeral – that they don’t qualify because they are not religious enough. Many vicars I know would say that some of their most moving funerals are for those who did not appear to have an outward professed faith. Yet in the combination of readings and music reflecting the person’s life, held together by the hope and promise the Christian service offers, God’s Spirit was very evident.
So insist on that vicar turning out for you if that is what you want. Even if you don’t want to see them at any other time in your life, most will be honoured and humbled to be asked. Of course it is not your only choice. You can also get a civil celebrant or humanist official to do it – or even a family friend, but if your instincts are that the vicar ought to take the service, make sure you ask for her or him – even if you’re not religious!