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Funeral Words

December 28th, 2009

surprised-by-hope

Increasingly people want to “customise” their marriage and funeral services, believing that they need to have a direct input into what takes place on such occasions. It often presents a challenge for the pastor or minister who is responsible for conducting the worship at those important and significant moments in human experience, in deciding what is appropriate for inclusion. Some people seem to have forgotten that  a marriage or funeral service is just that, a service of worship addressed to the Almighty.

One passage which is often requested and quoted at funerals comes from a sermon by Canon Henry Scott Holland of St Paul’s.

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I and you are you, and the old life we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow….Life means all that it ever meant. It was the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

In his book, Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, points out that the popularity of these words reveals the widespread confusion and ignorance that exists within the church and in the wider population, with regard to death and the life to come. This passage was not the view that Scott Holland actually advocated. It was simply what came to mind, he said, when “we look down on the quiet face of someone who has been very near and dear to us”. Rather, Scott Holland viewed death as “the cruel ambush into which we are snared ..it makes its horrible breach in our gladness with careless and inhuman disregard of us”.

Wright reckons that this piece should not be used in Christian funerals because “it offers hollow comfort. By itself, without comment, it simply tells lies. It is not even a parody of Christian hope. Instead, it simply denies that there is any problem, any need for hope in the first place.”

He contrasts this piece with John Donne’s famous sonnet, “Death be not proud” and the especially the last two lines: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.” In the Scott Holland passage there is nothing to be conquered. For Donne, death is an enemy. For the Christian, it is a defeated enemy. Donne sees life after death in two stages: first, a short sleep, then an eternal wakening. “And death shall be no more.” This is the basic and central New Testament perspective. Death will not simply be re-defined; it will be defeated. If the promised final future is simply that immortal souls will have left behind their mortal bodies, then death still rules.

But Christians say “I believe in the resurrection of the body”, believing that one day God’s sovereign rule will come “on earth as it is in heaven”. Wright points to the pictures and insights which we are given in the Book of Revelation.

“The wonderful description in Revelation 4 and 5 of the twenty-four elders casting their crowns before the throne of God and the Lamb, beside the sea of glass, is not, despite one of Charles Wesley’s great hymns, a picture of the last day, with all the redeemed in heaven at last. It is a picture of present reality, the heavenly dimension of our present life. Heaven, in the Bible, is regularly not a future destiny, but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life – God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both, and join them together for ever. And when we come to picture the actual End in Revelation 21-22, we find, not ransomed souls making their way to a disembodied heaven, but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace.”

It seems as though those of us who preach and teach regularly in church have a major task on our hands in terms of helping people to understand these truths. In the final chapter of this book, Tom Wright points out the two basic approaches that preachers take with regard to preaching and applying the doctrine of the resurrection, and how that they both fail to reflect the proper biblical emphasis, thereby adding to the popular confusion. If we preachers don’t get it right and make it plain, then we cannot blame our church members for their ignorance and confusion.

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