One of the privileges of being a parish priest is being asked to accompany the dying and the bereaved. Whilst such a ministry is undoubtedly demanding, particularly emotionally, it is always fulfilling in the way people respond to the support one is seeking to offer.
The expectation of people in their approach to funerals has changed significantly over the last twenty five years. Like most change it has its positive and negative aspects. Positively, loved ones usually now want a funeral service to be much more personal than they used to be. They desire the funeral service to speak of the uniqueness of the person they knew and loved, and want to celebrate and give thanks for their gifts and influence. In this sense they “own” the occasion very much more and want to be involved in its design and preparation. This engagement can only be positive.
A slightly less positive trend that has accompanied this has been a desire to often only look in one direction. In seeking to celebrate a person’s life there is frequently little desire to look forward and ask important questions about what happens to each of us after we die. It sometimes feels that this is too painful because such questions of faith are unanswerable, or so beyond a person’s experience that they give the impression that they are simply best ignored. Unsurprisingly, as a person of faith, I find this a little unsatisfying.
Christians don’t just “wish” that there is an after-life, rather it is a faith based upon spiritual experience. Centrally important to this is the witness of scripture and of Christians throughout the ages to a resurrection faith. However, the experience of Christian people of the presence and love of God in their daily lives, in prayer and in worship, also informs this trust that in death we are not simply abandoned into nothingness or chaos. The Christian faith witnesses to the belief that every one of us is beloved by God and that at the end of this earthly life his deepest desire is to receive us home.