by the Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning’s “teaching sermon” explores what those of us in “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement” believe and do in relation to the end of life and the rituals of burial.
I don’t know whether you’ve noticed it, but in this sermon series we’ve been making our way through the Book of Common Prayer: we looked at Baptism and Eucharist, the Church’s primary and central sacraments, and then at the sacramental rites – confirmation, marriage, ordination, confession and healing. In the Prayer Book, these additional services come in the order in which we’ve looked at them, grouped together as “Pastoral Offices”. (One exception is that ordination services come under “Episcopal Services”, since they require the ministry of a Bishop.)
The last of the pastoral offices, or ways in which the Church supports and ministers to its members through the transitions and challenges of life, are Ministration at the time of Death and the Burial Office.
Let’s start with acknowledging that death is a hard thing to think about and talk about, for a variety of reasons. We all to want to live as long as we can – our lives are, after all, a gift from God, to be cared for and preserved. It is painful to lose those we love, hard to face the ways in which aging involves the loss of capacity for all of us who manage to live into old age, and really hard to see the suffering that often accompanies serious illness - painful both for the sick person and for those who love them. Death is scary in that we just don’t really know what comes after. And some deaths are simply tragic, especially when death involves a young person who has not lived a full life, or if death is sudden and unexpected.
The reality of the many ways in which death is difficult exists in a tension with what our faith teaches us about it. As followers of Jesus, we believe that death is not the end of life, but is, rather, a transition to another part of life in which we return to God, entering into a larger life than we can know or imagine now. We believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ assures us of this.
Secular culture has popularized images of a heavenly afterlife to a ridiculous degree. The Book of Revelation speaks about pearly gates and streets paved with gold (Rev. 21:21), but the ways in which this symbolic and mystical image has been taken literally and expanded – we’ve all heard plenty of jokes about Saint Peter as gatekeeper with clipboard in hand - are not biblical and definitely not helpful.
What scripture does promise us is that God’s love surrounds us even as we pass away out of this life, and that beyond life in this realm we are set free into a closer life with our God, with Love itself.
Here’s some of what scripture offers:
Jesus assured Martha of Bethany, at the time of her brother’s death, that “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever who believes in me, though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-6)
Similarly, he assured the disciples, as he was preparing them for his own death, that “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:2-3)
Comfort is also found in Paul’s writings: he assures the Romans that “neither death nor life… will be able to separate us from the love of God.” (Romans 8:38-39), and in his wonderful dicussion Love, written to the Corinthians, Paul promises that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then [we will see] face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. (I Cor 13:12)
We believe these things, and yet, when death comes, we grieve. The Church, in its ministries, seeks to honor and balance both of these truths.
The Prayer Book actually offers a series of opportunities for prayer around the time of death. Ministration at the Time of Death (BCP 462-465), which is often referred to as Last Rites, is a brief service of prayers asking God to comfort the dying, to protect them from pain and evil, to pardon sin and grant them a “place of refreshment” and “give them joy and gladness”. It includes a brief litany to be prayed with loved ones who are present, as well as the Lord’s Prayer, and we anoint the person with the oil of chrism, the same scented oil that we use at baptism. The service includes what I think is one of the most beautiful prayers in our tradition, the prayer of commendation, which is also included in the burial service itself:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your
servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive them into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen. (BCP p. 465)
Ministration at the time of death is a very precious, intimate, and privileged moment in ministry. The liturgy is ordinarily led by an ordained person, but it can also be offered by a lay person if a priest or deacon is not available. It is a tremendously powerful way to offer the concern of our hearts to God at the time of death. I have read it by myself when learning of a death I want to respond to but have not been present for, and have also read it together with family members who live far from a loved one who has passed away.
Following Ministration at the Time of Death in the Prayer Book are two additional short sets of prayers through which the Church can mark the processes of attending to death. “Prayers for a Vigil” (BCP 465-6) provides prayer for family and friends in the time between death and the funeral and, like Last Rites, expresses love and petition for God’s care for the one who has died. The Prayer Book also provides a brief liturgy for “Reception of the Body” (BCP 466-7), for use at the time the body is brought to the church.
In the Episcopal Church we now have a variety of funeral liturgies available. The Prayer Book offers two options for The Burial of the Dead – Rites I and II - and we also have an authorized alternative from the Enriching our Worship series; they all follow the same approximate format, but differ in the style of language. In a funeral service, hymns may or may not be sung, scripture is read, and prayers are offered both for the one who has died and for family and friends in their grief. The departed is often remembered with reminiscences by family members, and clergy may preach a homily. Holy Communion may be included. The service, if it is in in the church building, concludes with a Commendation of the individual to God’s care.
The final part of the service may follow directly after the first part of the burial rite, or it may be separated in time. During the Committal the body or ashes are placed in their permanent resting place – whether in the ground, at sea, in a columbarium, or otherwise – and again, prayers including the Lord’s Prayer are offered. It concludes with a dismissal based on the Easter affirmation:
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.
Funeral practices have changed in recent years, in large part because the pandemic has been a significant factor requiring families to adapt their expectations and their practices. For one thing, cremation has become much more accepted and commonplace, and it allows families to schedule services when it is convenient for those who need to travel. The limitations of safety protocols for indoor gatherings has resulted in many more families choosing graveside services, and those that Heather and I have presided over in the last couple of years have been lovely.
While restrictions on end-of-life rituals have made it difficult for some families to celebrate their loved ones as they might have wished, I think that the opening up of options has ultimately been a good thing. In comparison to other aspects of the Church’s life, our tradition allows broad leeway for personalizing the services that mark the end of a human life, and leeway is often called for as the individual needs, circumstances, and preferences of families can vary. As Heather and I work with families planning funerals, our focus is on helping the families move through and beyond their pain as they remember and celebrate the life of the one who has died.
I’m sure many of us have experienced the fact that the processes that follow death can be messy. While enduring a death can help us put things in perspective and bring out the best in us, deaths can also re-activate old family issues and conflicts. In our complex psyches, regrets, resentments and guilt can surface in unfortunate ways as we move through not only the religious rituals but also the other practical chores that accompany death, such as disposing of property. Whatever we can do to minimize the potential for additional hurt around times of death is something to strive for.
Which brings me to reflecting on implications for us here and now: (you know that Heather and I always try to offer things to think about and do as we leave our worship each week!) There ARE things we can do as we think about death.
It is not only a gift to those who love us but a personal responsibility for us to prepare for our own deaths, however little we may feel like doing so.
For one thing, it is really important to have a will that directs others in how we want our worldly assets used after our deaths. The process of making a will helps us to come to terms with our own mortality AND to think about what is important to us in the way we leave things behind. Making provision for distribution of our assets is not only an opportunity to provide for our families’ security, but also to be generous in charitable giving in the many places where there is need in the world.
Closely related to the importance of having a will is that of having advance health directives on record and having a health care proxy designated, a person who can make decisions for us if we are not able to express our wishes. Hopefully your health care provider has already had you complete these documents: if they haven’t, please take care of this soon.
I also urge each of us to do some funeral planning. It is not a morbid thing to do. It provides help to our family members who, after we pass away, will have plenty of things to take care of and decisions to make: providing them some guidance on how WE would like to be remembered in a funeral can make the process a little bit easier for them. Here at James and Andrew we have a form that reminds you of choices to be made for your funeral. You can take it home to think about, discuss it with your loved ones, and/or you can meet with one of us to talk about your wishes, and we can keep a copy of your completed form on file here for the day it is needed.
Our Faith Community Nurse, Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy, has also introduced us to a form called Five Wishes. It can be used as an official document that outlines what we would like the last stage of our life to look like. Kathryn tells me that she has numerous copies. I have completed it, and I commend it to you.
Taking care of these acts of planning is, in its way, an act of faith. It says that while we value our lives, we know that they will end, and we want to do what we can, now, to help end our lives responsibly and with love.
Amen. May it be so.
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