The Committal service

Many aspects of funerals have changed over the years. For one the overall atmosphere, from a time of mourning and sadness to one of celebration and giving thanks. I find it so odd now when people ask of me, “I don’t want this service to be a downer. We need to lift our spirits.” I reply that I have not seen or heard one of those “downer” services in years and years, more like decades. Just as we have shifted from caskets and men in black suits as pallbearers to urns and women and men in all forms of attire we have seen the content of funeral change as well. The expectation of laughter is now a constant, people are now comfortable with humour in a funeral. I remember presiding at funerals in the mid 1990’s and having student ministers tell me they were shocked to hear people tell funny stories about the deceased. That shock would never happen today.

We expect a lighter touch at funerals and we expect a more personal touch as well. From the items placed on the table beside the urn at the front of the church, to the songs the loved one liked being included in the service, whether they were hymns or not, a change has come to how we deal with death as community. I believe this is a positive change but there is one concern I carry forward. There can be an expression of emotion that rings untrue, where the true feelings of hurt, loss and pain are covered over by the gloss of smiles and laughter. It is very human to laugh and cry, to be full of thanksgiving one minute and hurt like hell the next. In days gone by we did not seem to allow for levity and celebration in times of death, now we seem to perpetually tell the grieving, “It’s OK just think happy thoughts, be positive.” Sometimes we need to be positive and sometimes we need to go deep into the feelings of hurt, loss and pain. Most of us know what we need to heal. We cannot allow pressure from those who cannot handle sadness to dictate our care.

One aspect of the changes in funerals is the committal service itself. Years ago this was done immediately after the formal worship service in a church. Now there is usually a reception following the funeral, so everyone can stay and speak to the family. Further, a decade ago the family would wait till all of the friends had left the Hall and then go to the cemetery. But now the committal is usually held off till the summer months, often to coincide with a family gathering in the loved one’s hometown. Time and again I will preside at a funeral in the fall and the family will tell me they travelled to Cape Breton or Pictou county or the south shore in the summer where they held a private gathering to place the urn in the old family plot in a community cemetery.

Lately I have been asking the families to find soil, earth, that was meaningful to their loved one and to sprinkle it on the urn as I say the sacred words, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The mission for the family, to identify that connection and go to that place and gather that soil is one that many tell me is very meaningful. Hearing that story, of how the loved one found peace, healing and joy in that earth is life-giving to me and others. In a deeper sense the laughter, tears and warmth that comes from sharing our connections to God’s creation is another way we can heal in grief. And our deeper connection to Creation is THE biggest and most positive change I have witnessed in our funeral rituals.

1. In the bulb there is a flower,

 in the seed, an apple tree,

 in cocoons, a hidden promise:

 butterflies will soon be free!

 In the cold and snow of winter

 there's a spring that waits to be,

 unrevealed until its season,

 something God alone can see.


 2. There's a song in every silence,

 seeking word and melody;

 there's a dawn in every darkness,

 bringing hope to you and me.

 From the past will come the future;

 what it holds, a mystery,

 unrevealed until its season,

 something God alone can see.


 3. In our end is our beginning,

 in our time, infinity;

 in our doubt there is believing,

 in our life, eternity,

 in our death, a resurrection,

 at the last, a victory,

 unrevealed until its season,

 something God alone can see.