Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Drained but satisfied now.

I was asked to take the funeral of this twenty one year old who died in his bed. It was totally unexpected with some medical event causing it. His dad had done some contract work for one of my chaplaincies, that is why I got asked. I got the request the day before I had to take the funeral for my 97 year old childhood minister.  That along with other stresses had stressed me out to the max already, and I wondered how I would cope with this funeral.

On Saturday I went out to the family home and sat and talked with the family - mum, dad and two sisters.  They of course were very sad but talked fairly freely and openly about their son/brother and about how they wanted to celebrate his life. I came home quite drained because I had been listening (which involves watching intently) and concentrating. I found it hard to concentrate on preparing the service for Sunday with this funeral on Monday hanging over my head. I did however manage to type up the content of the newsletter and got a service constructed and on Sunday morning, delivered. On Sunday late afternoon/evening I set to composing the funeral service from notes I had scribbled over the last day or so. I had talked to the father on the phone and he also had suggested I peruse the tributes on line. On Monday morning I continued editing and revising the words again and again. I had to do some sort of sum-up eulogy and to my amazement somehow the way I should do it came to mind in a "penny drop" type experience. I prepared, but was still not sure they were the right words or the best way of doing things. The family were not religious and wanted to be honest about that, so the prayers were turned into affirmations. Through the wording I wanted to affirm life without resorting to religious cliches. It is a very worthwhile exercise to do, making you realise that ministers can be quite lazy resorting to well worn religious cliches.  

The thing that hit me was that I was so very nervous. (I have taken funerals for thirty nine years and I still get nervous with every one) On two nights I lost a lot of sleep thinking about how I would go. On Monday morning just after breakfast my wife cut my hair, and as I sat patiently in the chair I felt this knot in my stomach - six hours before the funeral.  Nearly thirty years ago I had taken the funeral of a seventeen year old girl killed as a pillion passenger in a motorbike accident. It had been hard, but I don't remember it being as hard as this one? I knew her and her family a bit better and I guess I was full of the confidence of youth. 

I conducted the funeral and there were of course gut wrenching moments during it as the family and friends shared their story and as they said their final farewells. There were heaps of young people there, and many were very upset. Perhaps their first encounter with death. I hardly knew any of the congregation. Afterward I stood around and guided people around the building. About four different people came up and commended me on the service. There were so many there that I did not get to talk with the family. I came home quite unsure about whether I had done a good job. I went for a walk in the dark to unwind. I found myself waking up at 3 a.m. still wondering whether I had done the right thing. 

Today I got a warm email from the family. Here is just a part of it....   "Thank you so much for conducting  _____’s service yesterday. It was just a wonderful celebration of his life.
 You set a great tone for the proceedings, and captured perfectly the essence of his personality."

I do not charge for a funeral. There are three reasons. (1.) The amount the funeral directors suggest they pay you for me anyway, is an insult to the work I do.  The minimum number of hours I put into each funeral would be eight hours. If you work out the hourly rate it would be quite small. (2.) It is always difficult to know who to charge and who not to charge. Somebody sees you as a friend?  There is a long serving Church member who has probably paid for his funeral hundreds of times with his offering? A poor family? It just seems easier not to charge anybody. (3) The Church pays me a living wage. I use Church time to prepare for and conduct the funeral, to me it would seem like double dipping to make extra money on the funeral.

To receive the letter above and to know that I really helped a family during one of the toughest moments of their life is the best reward I can get. I am very tired tonight but inside I am deeply satisfied and fulfilled.

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