Last journey

Catching up on the news, I was moved by the account of Linda Norgrove’s burial on Lewis.  The aid worker who as killed tragically during her rescue in Afghanistan had a humanist ceremony followed by the carrying of her coffin part of the way to an island cemetery. 

There were heartfelt and beautiful sentiments expressed – some in the language of prayer:  ‘I pray that we can find some kind of way through to you, Linda, to communicate our love, to help you through;  help you in the clear white light you now find yourself within’.  Even an appropriate bit from Bertrand Russell: ‘Those who have lived nobly need not fear they have lived in vain.  Something radiates from their lives, something light that shows the way to their friends …’

I have sometimes felt at humanist funerals that whilst the words are good, there is something static about it all.  You can mourn, you can celebrate, but you go no further.  I wonder whether the ‘Hebridean tradition’  of family and friends carrying the coffin at least part of the way to burial (also known in Stirling, but rapidly fading) gave the funeral a kind of spiritual dynamic.  

I  think we also need to safeguard Christian funerals from becoming simply a static celebration of a person.  Apparently, some families ask for a private interment or cremation to be followed by the funeral these days.  But we are celebrating not just a person’s life but their movement into a new dimension, a greater light, their fulfilment in God.  Getting things in the right order and expressing spiritual movement in a visible way – from home to church to cemetery – is a vital, sacramental expression of our faith.

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4 Responses to Last journey

  1. Ann Lees says:

    I don’t know the funeral service very well (a happy state, I admit!), but what difference does it make if the interment/cremation has happened before the service? I had rather naively thought that a service sans the departed would be a memorial rather than a funeral? Is there a real difference or just a distinction?
    The family or friends carrying the coffin or holding a cord at the lowering of the coffin into the grave does have a feel of personal care and involvement that is emotionally appealing – though I don’t know that I would have been capable of either at the funerals of family I have attended. Part of modern squeamishness, maybe?

  2. alisonpeden says:

    Yes, I’d agree that a ‘funeral’ after the committal (at cemetery or crematorium) is actually a memorial service, celebrating and remembering the earthly life of someone. I see a funeral as a way of releasing someone into the care of God and into a new dimension of life, so it’s a journey. Certainly, we remember and celebrate, but we then begin to let go, and commend the person to God – ‘Go forth upon your journey from this world, dear child of God, into the hands of the Father who made you … may peace be yours this day and the heavenly city your home.” Carrying the coffin and lowering the cords is doing the last bit of care that we can before we let go. But I wonder if clergy forget how hard that can be?

  3. Lois says:

    I am not sure I agree for both my parents we had the interrment first – in both cases it was their 10 grand children that held the cords and lowered them into the ground which was a very powerful symbol of the generations passing from the old to the new and I think the grand children felt the privilige of that responsibility – they were all asked if they wanted to do that and they all agreed. The minister held a short service where the focus was very much on the transition from this world to the next . This was the place where family and very close friends could mark that transition – then we moved to the thanksgiving service in both cases a packed church with 300 plus people – they were dearly loved members of a small scottish town. My brother gave the eulogy for my Dad and then when it came to the time of my Mum’s death I gave the tribute and that was a really important thing to do and I am not sure if physically I could have done it if I had still to mark that transition of her moving from this world so you maybe theologically right I am not sure, but emotionally it felt so much easier to have your own quiet goodbyes , mark the transition to the new and then be able to be strong for the wider population that wished to pay their respect

    • alisonpeden says:

      Lois, thank you so much for your moving insights. I can see that a big thanksgiving service would be easier to sustain if you can have time and space for the personal farewell first. Would it be appropriate to call the the interment the funeral and the service afterwards a memorial service? What would it have been like if they had been on different days?

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