Fleming Rutledge–Thinking about funerals (what funerals?)

An Episcopal clergyman told me recently that in his 6 years in office, he had never seen the pall used in his parish church. What does that mean? It means that the traditional Anglican funeral, with the coffin present and covered by the pall, has almost ceased to exist. How has this happened? The “new” (1979) Book of Common Prayer clearly calls for the body to be present in the church — the rubrics (italicized instructions) assume it, with instructions such as “The coffin is to be closed before the service.” There is even a special set of prayers to be said (p. 466) as the body is brought into the church to repose before the service.

What has happened in the 30+ intervening years to cause this to change so totally? We now have the ubiquitous memorial service, which as far as I know scarcely existed at all thirty years ago….

Read it all.


Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, * Christian Life / Church Life, * Culture-Watch, * Religion News & Commentary, Death / Burial / Funerals, Episcopal Church (TEC), Eschatology, Liturgy, Music, Worship, Other Faiths, Parish Ministry, Religion & Culture, Secularism, Theology

7 comments on “Fleming Rutledge–Thinking about funerals (what funerals?)

  1. APB says:

    Not certain how much we can draw from a small sample. In thinking back at funerals I have attended, at 3 TEC churches in 2 diocese over the past decade or so, a pall was used in all of them. (There were also two cremations.) It is certainly used in the ACNA church I attend.

  2. Terry Tee says:

    I agree with so much of what is written here. There is no reflection, however, on what has brought about this social change. IMHO it is a loss of the fear of judgement. On the one hand, it is good that people no longer go in fear in the way that they used to do, with, for example, older Catholics remembering how the Redemptorists used to specialise in parish missions that dwelt on things like everlasting torment. On the other hand, as this fear has faded, so has a sense of personal accountability. Funerals can therefore be delicate things. There can be someone who treated his family abominably, or whose life was blighted by addictions. The official language allows us the neutral expression of prayer for mercy, in an unjudgemental way, acknowledging that we are all sinners and all will need God’s mercy. On the other hand, the spirit of our times wants to airbrush all this out and simply ‘celebrate’ the life of the deceased. All of which can make for difficult discernment by the pastor.

  3. Terry Tee says:

    That said, every priest funeral I have attended has included eulogy about him. Except one. On that occasion, the bishop explained rather apologetically, the funeral instructions had insisted that there be no eulogy. ‘Because’ the priest had written aforehand to the bishop, ‘I don’t want you up there lying about me while I am lying down there.’

  4. driver8 says:

    1. The absence of coffins (that is, bodies) has been shocking to me, coming from outside the US. Even for cremations in the UK it was typical to hold a service with a coffin, before heading out to the crematorium. Here, the mortal remains are often cremated within 24 hours of death, with no prayers by the church, no thanksgivings, and no family present. It seems unremarkable in the local culture in my part of the US (no one else seems to find it shocking) but it feels to me one area in which the church ought to think very hard about being much more counter cultural.

    the traditional Anglican funeral, with the coffin present and covered by the pall

    2. I’m slightly baffled by the way Episcopalians sometimes use “traditional”. FWLIW until I served in the Episcopal church, despite serving in the COE for well over a decade and taken, probably, hundreds of burials, I never saw a pall used. (Here of course we do use them, on the rare occasions on which a body is actually

  5. High_Church says:

    I’m not surprised to see that this is true, but I am surprised to see a critique from a TEC person on this front. Of course the therapeutic culture rejects the idea of a funeral, because they reject the notion that man is under Adam’s curse…that man is sinful by nature and the most glaring undeniable piece of evidence for that is our death…the punishment for who we are in Adam. Thus we now have memorial services or we “celebrate a life” and people don’t die…they pass away. Not only can the culture not do death because they deny the sin nature, but there is a silly shallowness in the culture which uncritically believes that their loved one is “at rest” on has gone on to a better place. And so the culture avoids the subject of death or interaction with death at all costs, because the vague Gnostic notions of the hereafter brings no real peace if any serious thought is brought to bear upon it.

    The great tragedy is that this type of thinking is just as prevalent inside the church (even among evangelicals) as it is outside. I haven’t been to an evangelical funeral in years (the last was in an old country Brethren church), although I’ve been to plenty of memorial services and life celebrations in evangelicals churches. Within the evangelical church in addition to the stuff from the culture, I mentioned above, coming into the church, there are several other reasons way we don’t have funerals any more. First, one of the legacies of American revivalism is a widespread notion that death is merely the door to our ultimate Christian hope of some sort of disembodied existence in heaven. I don’t know how many evangelical Christian I’ve spoken to that really have never thought about the resurrection of the body and the new heaven and new earth. Thanks to N.T. Wright for his book on the topic! Secondly, there is another notion which comes out of American revivalism, specifically the holiness movement, that makes things like mourning and sadness a kind of sin (i.e. if you really loved Jesus and believed in him you wouldn’t be sad because you’d know your love one is in heaven or, more generally, if you are attuned to the Holy Spirit he will give you joy and if you’re sad you must not be attuned to the Holy Spirit). Apparently few have read Solomon say that it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of mirth. I know for those of you in TEC or Anglican churches this may sound quite silly, but when you get out there into the mainstream of evangelicalism this stuff is rampant.

  6. driver8 says:

    The absence of the corpse (which, astonishingly, is the case in the majority of funerals I have taken over the last 5 years) is a complete novelty in christian practice and it is worth thinking what this novelty means. Of course memorial services for those lost at sea, or buried overseas, or those who had donated their bodies to medical science were known before but when bodiless funerals become the norm (as they seem to be in my part of the US) how does what we normatively do, communicate what we say we believe? “I believe in the resurrection of the dead” when there is normatively nothing dead to be seen?

    Once or twice I have used the 1662 Order for the Burial of the Dead and just before the coffin is lowered into the ground the priest says,

    [blockquote]Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to
    live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the mist of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord., who for our sins art justly displeased? Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.
    Thou knowst, Lord, the secrets of our hearts: shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour for any pains of death, to fall from thee.”[/blockquote]

    These are immensely powerful words and make sense in the context of an immensely powerful action – the lowering of a body into the ground. My question – is not about necessity – not what must we do – but about what ought we to do, if we are able. Does right speech imply anything about right action? Does orthodoxy imply anything about orthopraxis, not just in our living but in our dying too?

  7. rdrjames says:

    One might peruse the Eastern Orthodox treatment of the body of the deceased (we don’t allow cremation). The funeral is normally open casket, and the ‘last kiss’ is given to the deceased before the coffin is closed, along with some very touching hymns. We believe that a believer is in the Body of Christ (the Church) and that the body of the believer is an icon, however damaged by sin, is an icon of Christ.
    James Morgan