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Earthed in Hope: Dying, Death and Funerals – a Pakeha Anglican Perspective

Earthed in Hope: Dying, Death and Funerals – a Pakeha Anglican Perspective

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Earthed in Hope: Dying, Death and Funerals – a Pakeha Anglican Perspective

552 pages
Oct 23, 2014


From the Foreword:
"Alister Hendery is offering us a great gift in this beautiful, resource-filled and comprehensive book. He has aimed to assist those within Tikanga Pakeha of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand to undertake ministry with the dying and the bereaved with creativity and sensitivity. This book certainly achieves that goal. But it offers much, much more than that and I hope it will find a significantly wider audience. In simple and unassuming style Alister provides not only a comprehensive resource, but a wise, insightful and at times challenging guide across the uniquely privileged landscape the pastor is called to traverse."
+ Philip Richardson
Primate and Archbishop – Tikanga Pakeha
Earthed in Hope will enrich the funeral ministry both of those in the Anglican tradition and also those from other Churches. It is a valuable resource for funeral celebrants, counsellors and anyone supporting the bereaved and dying. Hendery reflects on and responds to spiritual, theological, liturgical, pastoral and cultural questions, and offers practical suggestions and insights that will be helpful to those involved in taking funerals and caring for the bereaved and the dying.
Earthed In Hope raises challenging and important questions, including:
* What are the purposes of a funeral?
* Why does contemporary society deny death and how do we help people face the reality of their mortality?
* How do we minister in a pluralistic culture.?
* What is the difference between a Church funeral and a celebrant-led service?
* What is the Christian understanding of life after death and what place is there for doubt?
When the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand revised all its liturgies, it produced the most comprehensive funeral rites in the Anglican Communion. They enable its ministers to respond creatively to the needs of the bereaved in a contemporary setting. The current New Zealand Anglican Liturgies are flexible and for the most part sound. Alister Hendery, however, highlights places in which they can be enhanced and offers positive suggestions for improvement.
A theme of Earthed In Hope is that while celebrant-led funerals provide a valuable service to the community, the Church is still well-positioned to work with the bereaved, conduct funerals and perform the various rituals associated with death. Hendery urges the Church and its ministers to give more attention and priority to this vital aspect of Christian mission.
The words used at a funeral are very important, but rituals and actions can be even more important as they express the inexpressible. We need ritual when what we experience is too profound and significant for ordinary expression and routine words.
The funeral minister’s role is complex and demanding. It’s not just about reading words from a book or being a MC. Most importantly, it’s about being with the bereaved. Hendery argues that our contemporaries are looking for people who will hear their questions, respect their searchings, and journey with them as a friend in their pain and confusion.
He notes that as the medical profession has taken over care for the dying, so care of the dead has passed to the funeral industry. However, he believes the bereaved need to be encouraged and supported in taking a more hands on role in the care of their dead. This can be done is small but significant ways that help bring home the finality of death.
Hendery deals sensitively and in detail with the issues surrounding funerals for children and those who have suicided.

Oct 23, 2014

À propos de l'auteur

Alister Hendery is an Anglican priest in Aotearoa New Zealand. Loss and grief have been a special focus of his ministry for the past 40 years. He has served as a parish priest, educator, counsellor, and funeral celebrant.These days, as well as exploring with others what loss and grief can mean for us, he ministers with faith communities in times of change.He is the author of Earthed in Hope: Dying, Death and Funerals, also from Philip Garside Publishing Ltd.

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Earthed in Hope - Alister G. Hendery

Table of Contents






1 — Introduction: A Changing Landscape

2 — Universal Dimensions

Doing Something with the Body

Making Space for our Mortality

Lost for Words – The Need for Ritual

Pastorally Caring

3 — Today’s Funeral Terrain

Personalised, Life-Centred and Celebrant-Led

Personal and Prospective

The Decades of Change – Facing up to Pluralism

Spirituality and Religion

The New Zealand Way of Death

Down the Green Path

Handling our Dead

Death in our Midst?

The Medicalisation of Death – A Denial of the Reality

The Uniqueness of Grief

Grief and Death on the Internet

Hope for Lost Travellers

The Impact of Tikanga Maori

4 — What Comes Next?

An Existential Niggle

Nature and Seasons

The Living Dead

Continuing Love and Heavenly Reunions

A Spiritual Potpourri

5 — How Might We Respond?

Threat or Opportunity?

God Present

A Starting Point

6 — A Theological Story

Through a Glass Darkly

The Voice of A New Zealand Prayer Book

Death and Beyond in the Hebrew Scriptures

Going Along with the Pharisees

No. Plato, No

The Body Matters – The Reality Matters

Questions about Heaven and Hell

A Place for Doubt

The Most Searching of Questions

Let us Lament

Sitting Shiva

7 — A Liturgical Story

Lessons from the Early Centuries

The Peculiar Anglican Story

A New Zealand Story

Liturgies for the Journey

8 — A Time to Die

Ars Moriendi – Dying Well

Being with the Dying

Prayer at Time of Death

The Shape of the Liturgy

Prayer Before a Funeral

The Shape of the Liturgy

9 — The Funeral Service

The Shape of the Liturgy

Enhancing the Funeral – Additional Directions

Funeral Eucharist

Memorial Services

Arranging the Funeral

Musical Overtones


The Address

Funeral Communities

Communal Ritual

Ritual for the Body

Ritual Flowers and Ritual Food

Guilt and Forgiveness

The Dead at their Funeral

Others at the Funeral

10 — Suicides

The Historical Legacy

A Cave of Agony and Darkness

At the Funeral

11 — Children

The Death of a Child

Death of a Newborn or in Pregnancy

Honouring and Treasuring

A Service for the Funeral of a Child

The Shape of the Liturgy

Children and Death

Dangerous Euphemisms

Children at Funerals

12 — Rites After the Funeral

Confusion at Cremation

Questions of Cremation

The Committal of Ashes

The Shape of the Liturgy

Prayers in the House After Death

The Shape of the Liturgy

The Unveiling of a Memorial

The Shape of the Liturgy

Beyond the Funeral Liturgies

13 — The Minister

A Multiplicity of Roles

Self Care

The Minister and Death

Selected Bibliography

About the Author and this Book

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Earthed in Hope

Dying, Death and Funerals

– A Pakeha Anglican Perspective

Alister G. Hendery

Copyright © 2014 Alister Graeme Hendery

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright 1989, 1995, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

All rights reserved.

This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

The publishers gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the

Wellington City Council, Cemeteries Department.

Front cover photograph:

Garside Imaging - Alexander Garside

ePub edition

ISBN 978-1-927260-29-6

Philip Garside Publishing Ltd

PO Box 17160

Wellington 6147

New Zealand

books@pgpl.co.nz www.pgpl.co.nz


As a priest in my early twenties I became acquainted with death and dying in a way that puzzled and unsettled my friends. When most were starting out on their careers in diverse fields of endeavour we would meet to catch up. My stories of the work I was called to tended to be a conversation stopper. It was hard to convey the growing sense of deep privilege I was experiencing. It was hard to share the deep intimacy and grace that my role drew me into. And in most cases it was inappropriate to do so anyway.

One of the consequences of my comparative youth was that I found myself increasingly asked to lead funerals for children and young people. Few things stretched me more or left me feeling more impotent, and yet few aspects of my ministry were more fulfilling.

A key aspect of this work of a priest, for me at least, was a journey deep into my own self awareness which forced me to face my own mortality very early in my life. Far from being a sad and melancholy experience I found a deep and unshakeable joy through my encounter with so many families who were grieving the loss of someone they loved. I discovered, time and again, the abiding presence of God. While, more often than not, it was inappropriate for me to give explicit voice to this, I was frequently aware that those I was with had a profound sense of that presence too.

Alister Hendery is offering us a great gift in this beautiful, resource-filled and comprehensive book. He has aimed to assist those within Tikanga Pakeha of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand to undertake ministry with the dying and the bereaved with creativity and sensitivity. This book certainly achieves that goal. But it offers much, much more than that and I hope it will find a significantly wider audience. In simple and unassuming style Alister provides not only a comprehensive resource, but a wise, insightful and at times challenging guide across the uniquely privileged landscape the pastor is called to traverse.

Alister quotes Paul Tillich’s phrase ‘the first duty of love is to listen’. This book helps to tune the ear of the pastor who listens care-fully. I am going to place a copy of this book in the hands of every person I ordain from now on.

+ Philip Richardson

Primate and Archbishop – Tikanga Pakeha


A Hebrew sage wrote: ‘It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for this is the end of everyone, and the living will lay it to heart’ (Ecclesiastes 7:2). The ancient writer has a point. We can learn much in the presence of death.

Ministry to the dying, the dead and the bereaved has been a significant part of my life for 35 years. Far from being a depressing occupation, it adds a sense of immediacy to life, teaching me to treasure the present moment and to rely on the grace of God – believing, as I do, that the life I have and the life I will know after death is a gift from the One who created me and who loves me. It seems to me, though, that we are reluctant to heed the sage’s advice. Despite the development of death studies as an academic discipline and the availability of an array of resources on funerals and grief, little has been written specifically about funeral ministry within the Pakeha Anglican context. While we can learn a great deal from the ever-growing body of literature emerging from overseas, and much of it can be adapted to our situation, the culture of Aotearoa New Zealand is markedly different from Great Britain, North America or Australia, each taking different courses and facing dissimilar issues leading to contrasting funeral practices.

This book is a response to this paucity of reflection, offering a resource for those who minister in this area as well as, I hope, serving as a catalyst for further conversation. While the focus in the latter part of the book is on how we respond to death within Tikanga Pakeha of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia, those from other traditions and cultures may well find it helpful. Funerals are, after all, universal events and within the wider Church we have much to learn from one another.

A book on any aspect of ministry is never the product of a solitary individual. Ministry is the servant work of the people of God, and what I offer owes much to clergy, lay ministers, parishioners and counselling clients who have shared with me their stories and searchings. A number of people generously gave of their time by reviewing various sections of my drafts, providing valuable information and offering their advice on various points. I am indebted to them all, but particularly to Indrea Alexander, Richard and Rebecca Apperley, Katie Boyle, Katherine Broome, Brian Carrell, Michael Chapman, Belinda Hodson and Robert McCullough. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Michael Wolffram, who shared with me some of his extensive knowledge and understanding of the contemporary funeral scene as well reviewing my initial work.

My wife, Deborah Broome, encouraged and supported me in this project. Throughout the process she posed challenging questions, made critical comments, offered invaluable insights and reined in my excessive use of commas. Above all, her love and her example as a dedicated priest is a daily source of strength and inspiration to me. Then there is my feline friend, Pericles, who frequents a space on my desk and reminds me of the importance of trust, simplicity and self-acceptance.

I acknowledge those who over the years mentored me in ministry. Of them, one stands out: Terrence Creagh, who tutored me in pastoral studies at Saint John’s Theological College, Auckland, and who kindled my passion for funeral ministry.

For a manuscript to be transformed into a book, a midwife is required. That role was taken on by Philip Garside, who saw it through to its birth. My thanks to Philip for his encouragement, his attention to detail and his belief that what I had to say was worthy of publication.

None of those who reviewed my various drafts, offered their opinions and advice, or supplied information, can be held responsible for the views I express or any inaccuracies in my work. These are, of course, my responsibility and not theirs.

Most of all, I am grateful to those who I have ministered to over the years. To share something of their journeys is an immense privilege. To them I offer my thanks for the opportunity of being a companion on the way, for hearing their questions, holding their hands, treasuring their tears and pain, crafting and presiding at their rituals, and being able to share something of the love of the One who is Love. I dedicate this book to them.

God of the living,

we remember with thanksgiving

those who have died in the faith of Christ,

and those whose faith is known to you alone.

May they rest in peace and rise in glory.


‘The Funeral Liturgies’ refers to the seven liturgies in A New Zealand Prayer Book – He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa¹ (hereafter ANZPB) which appear under the section entitled ‘Funeral Liturgies and Services in the Time of Death’ (ANZPB, 809-884).

‘The Funeral Service’ is the liturgy that begins on page 826 of ANZPB.

‘Funeral Ministry’ is used inclusively to refer to the Church’s ministry to the dying, the dead and the bereaved.

‘Minister’ is any lay or ordained person who is authorised by the Church to conduct ‘The Funeral Liturgies’ and / or to pastorally minister to the bereaved. Where an ordained minister is specifically meant, then the appropriate term is used.

‘Pakeha’ is a non-Maori, New Zealander of European descent, though this is often expanded to include all non-Maori.

‘The Provincial Commission on Prayer Book Revision’ (hereafter PCPBR) was the body set up to prepare a revised Prayer Book for use in New Zealand.² Over a 25 year period the PCPBR prepared various trial liturgies before finally creating ANZPB which was launched in 1989.

‘Tikanga’ is used in two ways. When the word appears with a small t it means ‘custom, way, style, or cultural model’, but when it is used in a specifically Anglican context it is written with a capital T, denoting one of the three strands that together make up the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, namely, Tikanga Maori, Tikanga Pakeha and Tikanga Pasifika. The Church’s revised constitution of 1992 provides an opportunity for each Tikanga to exercise mission and ministry within the culture of each partner.


Our talk about death has become submerged in euphemisms. A quick search on the Internet uncovered over 150 of them. I suspect this is, in part at least, symptomatic of our desire to deny the reality of death, but whatever its root, it is something that I believe is best avoided. Though at times it may seem a little cumbersome, I have sought to use unambiguous language. For example, while it is now a common practice to use the term ‘the deceased’ to refer to someone who has died, I have chosen to use such phrases as ‘the dead person’ or ‘the person who has died’. Similarly, I use the term ‘coffin’ rather than ‘casket.’ The latter, which is favoured by the funeral industry, is a term acquired from the United States. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘casket’ as referring especially to a rectangular coffin. Most Pakeha still choose the traditional shaped coffin (that is, with six sides). As Thomas Long notes: ‘The real distinction between the two is one of marketing. Since coffin is negatively associated with death, the term casket, or jewel box, was borrowed to make the concept more commercially appealing.’³ The term ‘casket’, like ‘deceased’, is an unhelpful diminishment of the reality of death and is an attempt to minimise the fact that this wooden box contains a dead body.


For ease of study, references for passages from Scripture and ANZPB are provided in the body of the text. All other references are cited in end notes which appear at the ends of chapters. Not every reader is an avid peruser of end notes, but it should be noted that I have utilised them, in a limited way, to annotate various points.

1 — Introduction: A Changing Landscape

Funerals are the most widely practiced rituals in the world, providing ample evidence that dealing with the mystery of death is humanity’s most pressing imperative.

Death is our inevitable fate. However hard we work to postpone it or try to deny it, we cannot escape it. Our mortality rate has consistently stood at precisely 100%. It is no wonder then that funerals are the most widely practiced human rituals. ‘Of all human events, death concerns us the most deeply’ (ANZPB, 811). The inevitability of death might suggest an equal inevitability about our response to death, but nothing could be further from the truth. How we approach death, how we mark it, what we believe about it, what we do with our dead, changes from generation to generation and from culture to culture. Within New Zealand, our response to death has changed radically in just the past few decades, and the changes keep coming, but amid them all, we keep having funerals.

Since its beginnings the Church has been deeply involved in people’s dying and response to death. It has made death its business. Indeed, its very life hinges on the death and burial of one man, who then rose from the dead. Funerals are an integral element of Christian ministry just as they are to human life. Yet, as with the rest of society, the Church has experienced such changes in this sphere that they might almost be described as seismic.

I began work on this book while living in Christchurch, at a time when death and grief was taking centre stage. On 19 November 2010, 29 men were killed in an underground explosion at Pike River Mine. Two months earlier a major earthquake struck the Canterbury region, causing significant damage but no deaths, but then, on 22 February 2011, another earthquake occurred, causing 185 deaths. As aftershocks continued unabated, Christchurch City and its environs were radically changed. Familiar landmarks were destroyed and the very shape of the land on which we stood took on new form. The city’s landscape became unrecognisable in places. As well as the loss of lives, many lost their homes and their livelihoods. It was a city shrouded in grief as people struggled to come to terms with the chaos inflicted upon them. Through it all the residents of Christchurch demonstrated a remarkable resilience as they surmounted challenges encountered in an uncertain and at times frightening environment. People found strength and support in the rediscovery of communal life. In my neighbourhood, within an area hard hit by the aftershocks, the Church was particularly proactive in reaching out to those in need. Amid the destruction and mayhem, parishioners who themselves had endured much, proclaimed through their actions and attitudes the resurrection hope.

The experiences of those months remain vivid in my memory, serving as a poignant metaphor for the subject of this book. The death of anyone who has significantly touched our lives changes forever our personal landscape. Life is never the same and the experience of grief can be overwhelming in the emotional chaos that ensues. What keeps us going in these times are the circles of love that encompass our lives: the love of family, friends and community, the love shared with the one who has died, the love of the God who is love.

The image of a changed landscape speaks to us at another level. Writers talk of a crisis in funeral rites within the western world⁵ and how funeral practices are in a windstorm of change.⁶ That is certainly true of the funeral scene in this country. Over the past four decades funeral practices have undergone sweeping changes. It is as if the valley of death has been subjected to cultural forces that make the terrain almost unrecognisable. In earlier decades most funerals in New Zealand were manifestly Christian in character even though the majority of the population were not active members of a Christian denomination. Today, most New Zealanders still request a funeral ceremony, but there has been a dramatic decline in the number availing themselves of the Church’s ministry for funerals. Alternatives have emerged. It is the norm for the funeral director to ask those arranging a funeral whether they want a clergyperson contacted or a celebrant, or if a friend or family member wishes to conduct the service. Options will be given regarding the venue. These may include the use of a church, crematorium or funeral home chapel, clubrooms, community hall or private residence. Those seeking bereavement support or grief counselling can turn to a variety of agencies and networks for professional help. These choices have spelt the demise of the Church’s pre-eminence as provider of funeral ceremonies and pastoral support. Likewise, Christianity as the reference point for people’s beliefs has been relegated to the margins. Within any one circle of bereaved family and friends, a spectrum of worldviews and spiritualities will probably be represented, and many of those attending the funeral will be unfamiliar with Church tradition and customs, let alone Christian belief about post-mortem life.

Like other Provinces within the Anglican Communion, that of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia revised its funeral liturgies partly in response to this changing landscape. These revisions occurred early on in this time of change, and in the four decades since the process of liturgical revision began numerous other shifts have occurred within Church and society, prompting reflection on how we exercise funeral ministry today. The need to evaluate funeral ministry at this time is given an added edge when we consider New Zealand’s demographics. 2016 marks the beginning of the demise of the baby boomer generation. The funeral industry is positioning itself for this development by way of the procurement of funeral firms by overseas companies⁷ and the expansion and diversification of services offered by the industry. However, is the Church readying itself with as much energy and commitment?

We also need to be attentive to criticisms sometimes levelled at Church funerals. These may speak of an event that was impersonal, irrelevant or inappropriate. Somehow the service failed to resonate with the bereaved. It may be that the minister used language that was irrelevant to the mourners or did not encapsulate the character and values of the dead person. Then there are more deeply seated causes for making funerals unhelpful, even conflicted events. Society as a whole struggles to handle death. After all, death questions faith, whatever form our belief takes. It challenges our mortality in the most direct manner possible. We use all the resources of modern medicine to fight against it. Death demolishes our illusions of health, safety, self-fulfilment and happiness. It shatters our dreams as we ponder the contents of the coffin. In the face of such painful realisations our natural inclination is to sidestep them, to minimise or even ignore them. Yet, the challenge remains as we hear or utter the familiar words that speak of our mortality: ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ It is the Church’s calling to minister to those who must hear those words, and to speak them in such a way that they convey ‘the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ’ (ANZPB, 837).

In the early 1980s I was appointed Vicar of a rural parish. In my first week in this new ministry a prominent parishioner and well-known figure in the community was killed in a car crash. A local ‘kindly’ pointed out to me: ‘You realise Vicar, how you take this funeral will make or break your ministry here!’ Because of the nature of that community, the statement was valid, if somewhat daunting. Over the years I have come to increasingly value the place funeral ministry has in the overall scheme of the Church’s mission. It takes us to the heart of the Christian faith and to the experience that most keenly challenges, even threatens us. Funeral ministry is also an immense privilege and humbling responsibility as the minister is invited to share in people’s lives at a time when they are seeking meaning and compassionate support. As a priest colleague of mine says: ‘We become a part of their extended family for that time.’

An aim of this book is to consider how we might best exercise this ministry with care and creativity, recognising the needs of the bereaved within the context of a complex and shifting milieu, while at the same time remaining faithful to the theological and liturgical tradition of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. That, however, is not as straightforward an exercise as it might seem. A cursory journey through Church history reveals that there has never been an ideal pattern for Christian funerals, and within Anglicanism, past and present, there is diversity in theological understanding and liturgical practice. Knowing that, we shall explore the cultural and spiritual contours of contemporary funeral practices and offer responses to the challenges presented. To do this we need, as Thomas Long remarks, ‘to be more than liturgical interior decorators, trying to figure out how to create tasteful funerals.’⁸ We must get behind the decor of contemporary trends and seek to understand why these fashions have emerged, what they are trying to express, and how we can minister within this changing scene.

Three final points by way of introduction. First, any work on funerals touches a subject that affects us at a profoundly existential level. In the presence of death we find ourselves wrestling with some of the toughest and most searching questions that mortals have to face. Rituals that mark dying and death involve us in the depths of our humanity. They cannot but challenge those who minister as well as those ministered to. At some level, in some way, the presence of death questions the purpose and meaning of our existence. Mindful of this, I step onto this terrain with caution, with respect for fellow funeral ministers, for those who work in the funeral industry, and above all, for the bereaved, the dying and the dead.

Second, I do not believe the Christian faith can be contained within a religious silo, isolated from the rest of society. Nor do I believe it possible to exercise a creative funeral ministry without being aware of the tensions presented by a prevailing culture that often holds radically different views about the meaning of death and funeral practices. How we respond to these dynamics with integrity is a challenge, but one that need not be a threat. Rather, it is an opportunity to journey with people as they seek hope and new life in the presence of death.

Third, the theological foundation of the ministry I have exercised over the years, while ever evolving, has always been rooted in Paul’s conviction, ‘that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38-39). As a leading funeral liturgist asks: ‘If we do not lead people to the love of God, where is the hope of which Scripture speaks?’

2 — Universal Dimensions

Doing Something with the Body

They buried him today

up Schnapper Rock Road,

my father in cold clay.¹⁰

Funerals are universal in the human species, historically, geographically and culturally. Archaeological evidence indicates that funeral rituals stretch back to the dawn of human history, with some of the earliest evidence of our most ancient forebears coming from burial sites. The universality of funeral practices stems from the need to dispose of a dead body.¹¹ The death of another human requires that we do something and the ‘pattern of funeral customs is basically dictated by the practical necessity of disposing of the body of the dead [person] as reverently and as efficiently as possible.’¹² Long writes:

It is a universal truth that every human being eventually dies, and all societies have recognised that the physical fact of death cannot be ignored… It is coded deep in our DNA that a dead body in the presence of the living both poses some kind of threat – of contamination? of impurity? of the loss of human dignity? – and constitutes a summons to dispose of the body with care and dignity.¹³

At its most fundamental, there is nothing particularly religious about a funeral. It is not dictated by creed but ‘by the simple truth that a dead body must be moved fairly quickly from right here to somewhere over there. ’¹⁴ This is what Sam Hunt describes happening ‘up Schnapper Rock Road,’ and it is what is stated at the beginning of ‘The Funeral Service’: ‘We have come to commit his / her body to be buried / cremated’ (ANZPB, 827). We are fulfilling a basic human need and responsibility, a truth borne out by the distress experienced by the bereaved when a body cannot be recovered. When this occurs bereaved people are often left with a sense of unfinished business,¹⁵ as testified to by the tensions that emerged in the wake of the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy. Many of the families of the dead miners struggled with the possibility that the bodies might never be recovered. Their need to retrieve the human remains was often reported as the need ‘to bring closure’ and ‘to move on.’ While the media bandies about such phrases with little apparent understanding of their meaning, they point to this universal need and the innate knowledge that something is incomplete.¹⁶

The early 20th century anthropologists Arnold van Gennep and Robert Hertz noted numerous similarities in the rites they observed among diverse cultural groups. Hertz wrote: ‘The body of the deceased is not regarded like the carcass of some animal: specific care must be given to it and correct burial; not merely for reasons of hygiene but out of moral obligation.’¹⁷ Humans have an undeniable need to make sense out of death, and funeral rites attempt to achieve this end.

While there are literally hundreds of distinct ethno-linguistic people groups, no society has yet been found that completely ignores the death of one of its own. In the words of one researcher, ‘as far back as people have thought about the subject, care of the dead is regarded as [the] foundation of religion, of community, of civilisation itself.’¹⁸ The exception to this universal truth is the rare occasion when funeral rites or memorials are deliberately withheld. This occurs when society deems that the person has been inhuman ‘and we want to symbolise that the person was not one of us.’¹⁹ Allied authorities cremated the remains of Hermann Goering and his nine executed compatriots and scattered their ashes in the Conwentzbach River. The body of Osama Bin Laden was buried at sea by the Americans because they did not want his grave to become a shrine. Nor is there any memorial to Michael Ryan, who murdered 13 of his fellow villagers in Hungerford, England in 1987, and then killed himself. A newspaper report from the time quoted a cousin: ‘His ashes will be scattered over an undisclosed rural site and there will be no grave or memorial stone to show he ever existed.’²⁰ Both Ryan and Bin Laden were give funeral rites but no memorial. The Hebrew Scriptures record the dishonour expressed when a corpse is left exposed to the elements, a fate allotted only to the likes of Queen Jezebel (1 Kings 21: 23-24; 2 Kings 9:35-37).

The manner in which Ryan’s ashes were disposed of was an attempt to obscure his very existence. This says that disposal is not merely a utilitarian function. If it were so, we would normally dispose of a corpse without further ado. When children bury their pet guinea pig in the garden, there is more to it than digging a hole and burying the body of the small animal. A social ritual takes place. A procession to the grave, followed by a solemn silence or words and possibly ritual actions; perhaps tears are shed and the body is carefully laid in the hole. However simple the ceremony may be, there is recognition that what was a life has now ended; that something that was significant and cared for is dead. Even with the death of a pet, a ritual is required. We hold funeral rites because we need to; because we know that an event of significance has occurred and that something must be done to mark this event. A funeral has various functions, but as Tony Walter says, the main one is to signify ‘the event of a death.’²¹ Whatever form the funeral takes, it must mark the significance of what has happened: that a valuable human life has ended, and then go on to interpret this event in some way.

The poorest family will do all they can to ensure that their loved one receives a decent funeral and soldiers risk their lives to recover the bodies of dead comrades. People the world over know that there is something profound about a human life ending, and something deeply amiss when no one marks it. In September 2011, I was called on in the role of a celebrant to take the funeral of Michael Clarke, an elderly man who had died in a Wellington City Council flat, but whose body was only discovered 13 to 14 months later. Michael had lived an intensely private life, but because of the circumstances surrounding the discovery of his body, his death became very public and his funeral featured in national news bulletins.²² The only facts known about Michael were his last address and date of birth. Apart from myself, the executor of the estate and the funeral director, the only other mourners were three people from the wider community, the city mayor, a councillor, and a large media contingent. The executor instructed that the funeral was not to be overtly religious. Yet, the service could not be a celebration of Michael’s life, as is now the common emphasis, because his life had been shrouded in anonymity. Nor was it prompted by the need for the expression of grief and therapeutic processes, because no one present could be named as the bereaved. Not being free to articulate overt Christian beliefs I drew on a basic rationale for a funeral, suggesting that it was neither an individual nor a community that was bereaved, but humanity:

We come to pay tribute to a fellow mortal who lived in our midst, yet we hardly knew him; who was one of us, yet chose to live apart… As far as we know there are none who were close to him. And yet, while there is no community, no individuals whom we can name as the bereaved, we are all bereaved.

The words of John Donne still speak with clarity of how the death of an individual can impact on others: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’²³ Today we affirm that Michael’s death is our loss. In life, he was, whether he knew it or not, precious and irreplaceable – and in his life ending, something in us has also come to an end.

Clods as well as promontories are worthy of recognition. Every human-being deserves a funeral.

How humans achieve these universal needs varies greatly from age to age, and culture to culture, but there is always an attempt to make sense of what has happened and to somehow enable the bereaved to continue life without the physical presence of the one who has died. Funerals assist with this process of adaptation, which Douglas Davies, an anthropologist and theologian, describes in these terms:

The fact that practically all human societies possess some formalised death rites, alongside the otherwise practical task of disposing of a body, suggests that funerary ritual possesses some very positive function in human life. In evolutionary terms, it is likely that they have a positive adaptive significance for if they possessed no such benefit they would have been abandoned long ago... [The] assumption is that death rites are a means of encouraging a commitment to life despite the fact of death.²⁴

We are supported and given strength to deal with our loss and to face our own mortality. In this, a funeral gives to others: to family, friends and wider community. It provides the opportunity for people to acknowledge and recognise the importance of what has occurred by keeping company with the bereaved, paying respects, offering sympathy and showing support. This usually finds expression in tributes paid, saying of farewells to the dead, the affirmation of faith and hope, and the sharing together of tears, laughter and memories. The funeral is, as Derek Nuttall describes it:

… an occasion for comfort and pain, for hope and protest, for individual memory and corporate acknowledgement…. Those who are bereaved need to know that the one who has died mattered to others and will be missed by others. A funeral is a fusion of this being demonstrated and of the concern and sympathy felt for those who mourn most deeply... It has to do with the sense of respect and support.²⁵

As with Michael Clarke’s funeral, the element of comfort to the bereaved was not appropriate and the recounting of memories was not possible. Instead, the focus was on human dignity. It was a ritual statement that a unique human life had ended, and that somehow we needed to give this life and death meaning. These universal functions of the funeral are often overshadowed or even lost in the contemporary funeral environment with its focus on the celebration of life. There is the danger of sidestepping the reality that something very precious has ended. Theologian Frederick Buechner urges:

Celebrate the life by all means but face up to the death of that life. Weep all the tears you have in you because whatever may happen next, if anything does, this has happened. Something precious and irreplaceable has come to an end and something in you has come to an end with it. Funerals put a period after the sentence’s last word. They close a door. They let you get on with your life.²⁶

The funeral marks the fact that this human life has ended. It affirms the significance of this death – for all those who were close to the dead person, for the wider community and society, and for humanity – and by so doing offers them permission to grieve.

Making Space for our Mortality

Funerals create a space for death in a society that makes little or no time for death and dying.²⁷

Grief is about more than sorrow or sadness. It touches the whole of us, affecting us physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. The feelings, let alone the physical sensations, behaviours and spiritual responses, are many and varied. They can include anger, guilt and self-reproach, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, helplessness, shock, freedom, relief, numbness, inadequacy, hurt and yearning.²⁸ The funeral does not shut out these responses but faces death without euphemisms or clichés. It ‘makes room for what is real, and for that reason, it cannot merely rejoice or simply wail.’²⁹ It recognises the mortality that we all share and which we will each inherit. David Hogue puts it like this: ‘In loss we encounter our shared humanity. In a very real sense, each funeral we attend is our own funeral, since the walls that separate us from each other crumble as we grieve together. John Donne had it right; none of us is an island.’³⁰

A funeral offers ‘comfort’, not only in the common interpretation of the word (as in giving solace, consolation and relief), but also in its older meaning: to strengthen. It gives us the strength to be honest about death. It dramatises our mortality and helps us come to terms with the fact that the person is dead. It is a symbol of the inevitability of death and questions the many thoughts and patterns of behaviour which try to deny this reality. This in turn raises other questions that must be addressed. It must also convey truths that offer hope and meaning, even if it is simply by reminding us that life is

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