Saturday, December 06, 2008

Bless all the dear children ...

Fortunately, the funerals of children are few and far between. My only hospital chaplaincy work was in a Geriatric and a Rehabiliation unit, so, though I have often been called out to the dying, I have fortunately conducted very few funerals of babies and children. I don't just use that word, 'fortunate', as a matter of form. Those few funerals have been some of the hardest to conduct, for all kinds of reasons. The circumstances can be so tragic and the words one can say about the deceseased him or herself so few, that they are certainly the toughest for a priest to do.

Tomorrow (December 7th) I am taking a leading role in a memorial service for Babies and Children at our local Cemetery and Crematorium. (Next weekend I do the 'adults' service). I'm not actually leading the service, though I have had a large role in planning it. However the order of service and the choice of readings has been finally decided by the City Council staff - not by me. That in itself would probably be one step too far for some of my colleagues. There is no biblical reading, and there is a clear brief not to make it too 'religious' in order to be as inclusive as possible. (Last year's service was conducted by a humanist, though that apparently was almost too 'unreligious'). there are some tensions there, and some sensitivity, but in the main it seems to have been worked out very amicably and positively. There's obviously a few points for reflection there, but that - at the moment at least - is by the by.

However, writing my words has been extremely difficult. We will be singing a couple of carols - and Christmas is certainly a good time to offer support to the bereaved, but also a very sensitive time too.

My words cannot be too, let's say, 'sacral'; they of course must be sensitive, and offer some comfort; and they should surely extend some hope and however gently present some of the attractions of the Christian message. I've got to be compassionate, but not sentimental. No easy task.

I find the Order of Christian Funerals invaluable, and especially the short service for an unbaptised child 'Rite of Final Commendation for an Infant'. It has, I was once told by a member of (the old) ICEL, an interesting provenence. The prayers were written by a mother on ICEL at the time who herself had lost a child. And it is one section where the word 'baby' was retained in the prayers despite objections that such a word is 'sentimental'. Some priests and lay assistant chaplains in hospitals may use these prayers often, but I guess that most priests do not even realise that they are there. They are gems.

I do speak from some little experience. My wife and I lost twins just a short time after they were born, some 21 years ago. It was some time afterwards that I discovered this short rite and saw its relevance. Just twelve months ago I conducted a simple informal funeral for our stillborn grandchild. Again, these words helped.

Anyway, this is too long an introduction already. Here follow my words for the Memorial Service tomorrow. Comments are welcomed.

Opening Prayer and Reflection

This service is made up of a lot of words. We will listen to a number of Readings. We will hear and join in the words of prayers. We will sing hymns, carols, about silent nights and a baby in a manger. Words, a lot of words.

And yet can there be no words which can possibly express what any of us might feel. We might use a lot of words, but in our hearts we are lost for words. In fact, although we have all gone through similar experiences, no two of us feel exactly the same. No one can honestly say ‘I know how you feel’. And when people try to express their sympathy, out of kindness, they can do one of two things: either be lost for words, and so avoid speaking to us about our loss, or, out a desire to say something, open their mouths and say words which though meant well, become awkward and even hurtful.

Yes, words fail us. Yet we will still desperately want to use them. When we have suffered loss many of us cannot speak of it - yet others of us can’t stop talking, telling the story, sharing our experience. We might say the same thing over and over again, and what we say may mean very little, but say it we must. A pain shared is a pain halved, or so they say.

But the truth of it all is that the words don’t answer our questions, or heal our pain, but they do provide us with comfort, and some consolation, and sometimes even a little hope.


Let us pray

Loving Father in heaven,
In the face of death all our human wisdom fails.
We are lost for words and struggle for answers.
We place our hope in your Love,
Who came down from heaven to be born amongst us,
And who taught us, by his three days in the tomb
That death has no hold over us any more.
In the midst of our sadness,
We place our trust in you
That one short sleep past,
Our beloved children will wake with you eternally.
We make this prayer in Jesus’ name.


Concluding Prayers

Trusting in Jesus, the loving Saviour,
Who came amongst and lay in a manger,
We ask him to bless all the dear children
In his tender care
And make us all ready to share the new life
With the Father in heaven as we say:

Our Father ...

Lord God, ever-caring and gentle,
We commit all these children to your love
Who brought joy to our lives, but for so short a time.
Enfold them in eternal life.
We pray for these parents, so saddened by their loss. 
Give them courage and help them through their pain and grief,
May they all meet one day in the peace and joy of your kingdom.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.



May the God of all consolation
bring you comfort and peace
and may almighty God bless you,
the Father, and the Son,
and the Holy Spirit.


David said...

Yea, generally children's funerals are hard. - But I shall not forget one I took while still a curate. The child had been born with a conditon which meant he wasn't expected to reach his 5th birthday. - The parenst had named him Christopher and determiend to enjoy every moment they had him. And his funeral had about it the sense of thanksgiving one sometimes has with much older people who have lived a fullfilled life. - David

Jackie Parkes said...

Dear Fr Peter..I notice you mention you are PP ..I thought married Priests couldn't be Parish Priests??

Just wondering..

Fr Peter said...

Dear David,

I agree. It is the sense of purpose - in a secular sense it the focus on the positive - in a more spiritual sense it is the gratitude to God for something which is essential gift. Blessed (Happy) are those who mourn ...

Fr Peter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fr Peter said...

Dear Jackie,

Ah! You have found me out! Yes, you are correct - according to the statutes issued in 1995 by which married men, formerly ministers of other Christian bodies, may be given a dispensation to proceed to the priesthood, such priests may not be instituted as Parish Priests (i.e. inducted) though they may be put in charge of parishes, becoming what is normally called 'priest in charge' (though which I think is technically parish administrator). The differences between PP and PiC are somewhat arcane, and in everyday terms makes no difference (at least hasn't for the last seven years).
In fact, my proper title would be Very Rev Peter Weatherby VF, MA (Oxon), M.Ed, PGCE - though as my vocation is more than anything else to be a priest with the care of a parish, I am bold enough often to describe myself as a parish priest (though normally lower case). The other stuff is just to impress ...

Jackie Parkes said...

Well then!

Gopher MPH said...

I formerly sang with a choir; we were the student parish for a university (here in the US). As with you, there were very, very few funerals for young children; funerals were pretty rare anyway. I would occasionally come to sing at those services (as would other choir members), to supplement the regular cantor. I always enjoyed this, which might seem odd. It's as concrete a conclusion as Baptism is a beginning.

I remember the only funeral I sang at for a child, who was 18 months old.

I've never managed to get through any funeral without crying; no matter whether I knew the person or not. That morning, I burst into tears when I saw the tiny little coffin. I knew the person was a baby; but the sight of such a tiny repository for her impacted as nothing else could have.

I have no idea how our Cantor managed to get through the whole mass without breaking down. An act of Grace, certainly.

Having my own children, who are still young, I can feel so much more sympathy for those parents. I remember them occasionally and offer my thanks to God that my children are still with me.