Because of the largely secular nature of today’s society it would be natural to assume that since people, in general, see no need of the Church in life, so they see no need of the Church in death. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
The Church of England alone performs funeral services, in churches, for over a third of those who die in the UK each year. It is likely that when other denominations are included, the percentage of funerals held in church would increase towards 50%. On top of this, Christian services, performed by Christian ministers, are arranged by funeral directors in crematoria and funeral parlours even if there is not a funeral in a church. A recent study by Co-Operative Funeral Care shows that 88% of funerals still have a “religious” content. It is therefore likely that well over two-thirds of funerals in the UK involve the Christian Church to some extent – at the request (or at the very least, the consent) of the bereaved family.
The mission of the church in respect of bereaved people is clear. There are two specific occasions when Jesus was “moved to compassion” in the face of family grief (the stories of Lazarus and the Widow of Nain). The scriptures are full of exhortations to care for and support “widows and orphans”. Overarching all is the need for the church to show Jesus’ compassion and come alongside all those who are struggling and in need of support.
In the light of this it is worthwhile bearing in mind the following:
- Churches generally do funerals well, but what seems to be less well understood is the need for the bereaved to be given longer term support (either by the church’s pastoral team or through signposting). This means that they miss the opportunity it gives to demonstrate Jesus’ compassion and engage with a significant portion of the local community – people who have actually approached the church at a time of great need.
- Few theological college curriculae include much about the need for pastoral support for bereaved families beyond the funeral and its immediate aftermath.
- The hope embodied in the Christian message throughout the Bible corresponds well with most classic bereavement support theories, but goes beyond them and adds significantly to the comfort and restoration that bereaved people need.
- There is no UK-wide or regionally-based bereavement support organisation with a Christian ethos or understanding apart from Care for the Family’s Widowed Young Support and Bereaved Parents Support. All other organizations are secular.
- Evidence from bereaved people who have attended Care for the Family’s Widowed Young Support and Bereaved Parents Support events indicates that although many churches have been very helpful to bereaved people, there are occasions when that has not been the case, either through flawed theological ideas or ignorance of their needs.
Is it possible that parts of the Church have tended to adopt the prevailing secular avoidance of death and its effect on bereaved people? Has the Church missed an opportunity to bring Jesus’ compassion and the message of Christian hope to those who are bereaved in their community? Is the church equipped to understand the need for and provide (or signpost to) appropriate support?
Although many churches do good work in this area, generally speaking all the above statements could well be true to a greater or lesser extent, and there almost certainly is a need for churches to respond to a call to mission to bring hope to the bereaved.