Last week I interviewed Jessica Rowe for Good Grief! She said: “We sometimes have the idea that everything about a funeral has to be reverent and really sombre. But it doesn’t. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What is the best way to farewell this fantastic person?’”
Jessica explained that for her best friend, Denise Drysdale, it’ll be with a bottle of champers, feeding into a tube in her coffin.
“The good thing is that today we don’t have to get caught up in a ceremony that isn’t a true reflection of the person,” Jessica said.
Jessica’s comment triggered a memory. Back in 2012, Anglican Archbishop Dr Peter Jensen argued in his last presidential speech that funerals were once opportunities to hear and pray to God, to think about sin, judgment, redemption and resurrection.
But now they had become opportunities for eulogists to attempt to resurrect the dead by “the power of fine words”.
“The last words come from friends and family, and their aim seems to be to build up the reputation of the dead person that all will believe how good a person he or she was,” Dr Jensen said.
“All seems designed to avoid the truth that the person is gone, that death is horrible, that bodies turn to dust, that the person has not one chance in Hell of avoiding Hell based on the qualities of their lives.”
Wow. His view was quite different to the emerging way we’re doing funerals, reflected not just in Jessica’s comment but in so many others like it.
At the time I wondered, as each one of us listens to a eulogy for someone we bury, haven’t we all suffered a thousand little deaths that have prepared us for this real one, given us enough insight to grasp what comes next? Aren’t we allowed a little distraction with our fairy tales? And his comments about Hell. What did they mean?
A few years later, I tracked down Dr Jensen and read him his comments. Despite the echoes of fire and brimstone in his published words, Dr Jensen was warm and friendly.
“It’s all about what Protestants call Assurance,” he explained. “That is, belief will assure us of a place in Heaven. That’s all we need.”
“We can be absolutely assured of the acceptance of God, not because of any quality of our lives but because of what Christ has done for us on the Cross. None of us avoid Hell based on the quality of our lives. We avoid Hell based on the quality of what Jesus does for us through forgiveness.” Ahh, okay.
That’s a little bit different, not a curse of damnation for just about everyone. Although it is utterly dependent upon belief.
This Assurance is a fundamental difference between Catholics and Protestants, he explained.
In that moment I thought of my mother, who had died a few years before, and understood how truly Catholic she was – in contrast to our Protestant friends. When she was compos mentis, she doubted she was worthy of God’s grace, a characteristic of Catholic humility. Her canon of prayers and humble lamentations pointed out her unworthiness. After dementia set in, she was surprisingly articulate in her rejection of any religiosity.
Framed through this lens, Mum did not know Assurance. To a devout Anglican such as Dr Jensen, Mum’s humility underscored a basic theological flaw; that she locked herself out of the belief that could have saved her.
But putting that aside, when Jessica suggests expressing something of who the person really is, is that such a bad thing?
Funeral celebrant Sharon Swinbourne says she is seeing more and more unique expressions of the deep ‘who’ of the person. Her examples remind me of Denise, and I love them. “I conducted a service recently where the coffin arrived on a Harley. As he was driven down to the chapel, “When the Saints Go Marching In” was playing, as he was a passionate St George (rugby league) supporter! It was very cool.”
“Another lady gave all the attendees little packets of flower seeds in memory of her husband, as he was a great gardener.”
“A very good friend passed away a few years ago. She basically organised her own funeral. She was always the life of the party and had a wicked sense of humour. The Zumba girls did a Zumba routine around the coffin.”
“Then suddenly we heard the sound of snoring. The following words came on the screen: ‘Don’t be alarmed. It’s just me having a bit of a rest while you watch my photos’. One of her other friends had taped her snoring, as she wouldn’t believe that she actually did snore! At the end of the service, there was a person dressed as a duck serving wine and champagne.”
“Another friend who organised her own service was being cremated. She also had a wicked sense of humour. She chose the song ‘Burn for You’ by John Farnham as a tribute to her choice of disposal!”
“Each to their own – I love it when families do something really unique!” she said.
To see what Jessica Rowe says grief has taught her, go to: https://good-grief.com.au/what-has-grief-taught-jessica-rowe/
Listen to Jessica Rowe and her best friend Denise Drysdale at:
And for the inspiring words of Rabbi Alvin Fine, on the simple truth Birth is a beginning, And death a destination, go to: https://theinspiredfuneral.com/readings/2018/2/18/life-is-a-journey