Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Planning a funeral

My father-in-law died suddenly a month ago, and last weekend was his memorial service. I ended up planning the service — as I had for my father back in 1995 — and learned a little more about funeral liturgy and service planning. In particular, 22 years ago I was one of the two decision makers while this time I was a consultant to my mother-in-law and her five adult children.

Both men had their services conducted by the longtime rector of Holy Trinity Anglican Parish in San Diego. While my dad’s service was held at the same site they’d had since 1921, the rector and 95% of his congregation walked away from the site ten years after losing their court case with ECUSA. Our service was held in the LCMS church they have called home since then.

Know the Decedent

I had asked my father-in-law for his hymn list in 2007, and reconfirmed in the summer of 2015. So we had four hymns that he wanted — Battle Hymn of the Republic, Faith of our Fathers, O God Our Help in Ages Past and Eternal Father.. To this, his widow added Amazing Grace. Both Faith of our Fathers and Amazing Grace were part of his sister’s 2006 memorial mass. I asked the rector to find a place in the service to sing all five hymns.

As at my father’s funeral, the multi-service version of the Navy Hymn (H40: 513) was a non-brainer for an Army vet. (WW II for my dad, Korea for my father-in-law). The only downside is that (to distinguish the two hymns), the hymnal begins “Almighty Father” rather than the more familiar “Eternal Father.”

My father-in-law had grown up in the most high church Episcopal parish in San Diego — now the cathedral — and was married at that church with an organ his parents helped fund. His boys had been in their chorister program (one overlapping with me), so we had an organist and I recruited a four-voice choir from among my friends. (It didn’t hurt that the bass is a member of the church choir, and all of the choir were Anglicans who’d worshipped at Holy Trinity).

Finally, I was told quite firmly that the service would begin on time. I guess this should not have been a surprise: my father-in-law was quite punctual, a source of tension during that phase when my wife and I were constantly late coming to family gatherings.

Know the Family

As at their aunt’s service, the children wanted a bagpiper. As at that service, we did it with Amazing Grace: in this case, the bagpiper played a stanza, and then we modulated into new key for five verses of organ, choir and congregation. (The bagpiper explained apologetically that he doesn’t get much choice of key on his instrument).

However, in preparing the order of service, I recommended that we end the service with Amazing Grace rather than begin it. If we started with the bagpipe, I feared there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house — or at least in the family pews. It turns out those fears were misplaced. The loved ones are going to cry during the service, but that’s a normal and healthy thing, and it’s something to be encouraged (as long as they don’t happen to be doing a reading at the podium).

Know the Audience

Who will be in the congregation is more predictable if the departed is an active member of the congregation. But that was not the case.

Still, we more than 150 packed into the service, which my own pastor says is unusual for someone in his 80s. He was active in 3 clubs, and had about 20 members of his boating safety association present. From various parts of the liturgy — the creed, the responsive sentences — it was clear that many in the audience (his generation, not mine) were current or former active church members.

It appeared that not all the congregation were regular singers, and some hymns clearly were more popular than others. Both are a topic for another time.

Planning the Service

The first choice that had to be made was the liturgical rite. Holy Trinity is a longtime Anglo-Catholic parish that is switching from Rite I to the ACNA liturgy. However, all their funerals have been Rite I, so we used that. (My father in law worshipped the greatest portion of his life using the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, but Rite I from the 1979 prayer book is what he'd used most recently).

I did some comparisons of the texts later on. The 1928 and the 1979 Rite I are very different liturgies, even though the wording of some prayers are the same. Meanwhile, portions of the February 2017 ACNA liturgy are identical to Rite II, including the Apostle’s Creed and many of the prayers. (Rite I and II seem to have the same structure but different language).

We then had to decide whether to include the Mass; in the end we did not. We weren’t sure how many would take Communion: however, we had a big crowd and I think we would have had more participants than at my aunt’s service — probably a majority. Without including Communion, 3 of the 5 hymns were before/between/after the Gospel and homily.

As with most American funeral or memorial services, we used the Authorized Version of Psalm 23 (said responsively this month; sung at my father’s service). To include all five hymns, the second psalm of the 1979 prayer book was replaced with a sequence hymn. The final reading was from John 14, which begins with the “many mansions” passage and concludes with the great statement of faith: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

The family discussed who would do the three readings: OT, psalm, Epistle. As in a Sunday Rite I service, we elected to have a fourth lay reader (rather than the priest) read the intercessory prayers. Some of the likely nominees (e.g. people who did readings at our wedding) declined out of concern that they might break into tears.

For a service that primarily serves Anglican churchgoers, a simple leaflet (with pointers to the prayer book and hymnal) would have sufficed. We elected to go with a service booklet — full prayers, readings and hymn text — with nine 8.5" x 5.5" pages printed on letter paper (plus a cover and other material). Three of the hymns were in the hymnal, but I don’t know if any hymnals were opened by anyone other than the choir or me.

I found one gotcha on booklet preparation. If I had to do over again, I would have typed the hymn text straight from the hymnal (and proofread it three times) rather than copy and paste from or Those sites have the text from one particular hymnal, and that text is unlikely to exactly match that of H40 (or whatever the preferred hymnal is). If I were in the habit of running church services, I would make a database of the exact text of all the hymns from my hymnal, no matter how many hours that would take.

Final Thoughts

In my current lay ministry class, one of my classmates is a part-time volunteer wedding planner at our church. After this, my family joked I had a future as a funeral planner.

Planning a funeral — like a wedding or a baptism — is not something that we do often in our lives. Absent written instructions from the grave, it is also made more complex by having one (or more) family members trying to discern the decedent’s wishes so that they can be honored, while at the same time sensitive to those of the survivors.

To allow for out-of-town travel, we had four weeks to plan this memorial service, while another recent funeral (elsewhere in the family) was scheduled in nine days. From the standpoint of logistics (not bereavement), two weeks is a reasonable interval. Anything less than that requires an immediate meeting with all the relevant family members to understand their wishes (rather than waiting for the next weekend as we did). It might also require someone taking a day off of work to pull together a complete service in a day or two, rather than over a week or two. (I don’t know how much work it was to plan the reception because I merely showed up).

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I value tradition, order and doing things properly — as did my father-in-law. Even without that, it really helped to have a prayer book and rector who (with clear pastoral sensibilities) set clear limits on what was and was not acceptable. With all the planning and other activities of that day, it was tempting at times to forget the real purpose of the service, as captured by the penultimate prayer of the service:
Into thy hands, O merciful Savior, we commend thy servant B. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

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