WHEN I first became a priest I started telling jokes at Sunday church. Then I started telling jokes everywhere – baptisms, house blessings, talks, hospital visits, charity works, ceremonies, weddings, everywhere. Everything was going great, until the day I did my first funeral.
What a disaster! I’m at the funeral and I’m up the front telling a few jokes, and I couldn’t believe it – no one was laughing. In fact, some people were even shaking their heads. I thought to myself, “Hmm, tough congregation. I’d better pull out the A material!” So I’m at this funeral and in the middle of a really funny joke when the widow of the deceased jumps up and shouts out “Sit down you fool!” Now, did she even stop for a second to consider that what she said might have offended me? Maybe she got out on the wrong side of the bed that morning. Who knows!
A few years back I used to lecture Australian Army recruits in Character Training with a unit on Death and Dying. The idea was to get future soldiers focusing on a particular fact of life; that one day, it ends.
I would say to the recruits something like: “Imagine you were at a funeral, and there were people sitting quietly in the church all around you, and the lid of the coffin was open for viewing the deceased. So you go up and look at the person in the coffin and you find that that person in the coffin is you and that this is your funeral.”
Then I would ask the recruits “As people get up and speak, what would you want them to be able to say about you at your funeral?”
I’ve been musing on that question myself and I’ve decided that at my funeral I would really like many, if not all the mourners to be able to say “Gee that priest owed me a lot of money!” And if I were given the above open-coffin scenario, then I would really love the people at my funeral to all be able to say “Look! He’s moving! He’s alive!”.
Even though we in modern Australia have become a very open and honest society, at the same time we have ironically become a death-denying society, and I do not believe it has done us any favours.
It’s almost November, which traditionally was the month that many of the living around the world prayed for the dead. The Bible encourages offering prayers for the dead in 2 Maccabees 12:41-45.
It may feel a little weird at first praying for them or with them, but it is very therapeutic for us who grieve for those who have passed away and it reminds us that while death radically changes friendships, death does not end friendships.
I remember as a teenager my favourite niece died. Four months later one of the best and most loyal friends I ever had died too. I never thought I would ever be anything but miserable ever again. What got me back on track was talking to God and talking to the ones I lost with the firm belief that they were listening.
Some of my Bible Christian friends disagree with me on this, but when I ask them to give me Bible passages that say we should not pray for, to, or with the dead, they can’t. And when any of us have lost someone we really loved, I mean really loved, who of us have not at some stage called out to them in our tears? It is a very natural, human and untaught response.
Imagining ourselves at our own funeral is a useful exercise, but don’t plan on it – until cloning is vogue. But speaking to those we’ve loved and lost can console us in these brief years of separation before reunification in the house of eternity.