Tea, cake and grave talk

The Revd Sheila Cameron writes in the August 2015 issue of the Team magazine, The Meeting of the Waters:


A couple of days in June attending a Church of England conference entitled Taking Funerals Seriously made me very aware of one of the most significant ways in which our rural life differs from that of the urban majority. We are fortunate enough to live in communities where local people still know and support one another in the main during significant life events and times of transition, and also where our close relationship with the natural world allows our funeral practices to remain largely traditional. Funerals in our rural parishes are still predominantly church-centred events, consisting of a Christian celebration and commendation followed by a burial, frequently attended by hundreds of friends and neighbours as well as the immediate family of the deceased.

However, we are exceptional in rural Northumberland and the Church at large feels challenged by a new demand for civil funerals, a trend that looks like matching the popularity of civil weddings. Consequently, the Archbishops’ Council has launched a project to encourage people with minimal church connections to turn to their parish priest for support when a family member dies and to think more about planning their own funerals in advance. One strategy is for local churches to hold café-style gatherings with tea and (lots of) cake to give people an opportunity to discuss their deaths, funerals and how they might wish to be remembered. This initiative has been given the label Grave Talk and there is a report of a pilot run in Lichfield Diocese on the Church of England Media Centre website. A booklet has been printed, Ideas for my Funeral Service, in which people can jot down favourite hymns and readings, as well as requests relating to style of funeral, type of coffin, whether burial or cremation and so forth, thus making the task of planning the funeral much easier for family or friends when the actual occasion arises.

Brightly painted coffins, motorcycle hearses, gravely humorous mugs and t-shirts, electronic memorials to rival the classic headstone – these were some of the many novelties on offer at the National Funeral Exhibition down the road from the conference venue. But why do we want to turn away from all of this jolly paraphernalia and deny death? The answer is simple – we prefer to think about life, which is the promise of our Christian faith. We are not meant to celebrate dying. We are offered a vision of life that stretches before us to infinity. As Christians we believe the best is yet to come.