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By Rev. Canon Grayhame Bowcott

There are few numbers that I dread seeing whenever they pop up on my cell phone. The local funeral home’s number is one of them.

Whenever I see that number, I know that another funeral will likely follow. In my current parish I have conducted ninety-five funerals, roughly ten funerals a year. Some of them have been of beloved parishioners, members of the congregation whose loss deeply impacts our worshipping community. Others have been complete strangers to me: some identifying with the Anglican denomination although never stepping foot in our church over the last nine years; some requesting me personally (always wonderful to have a reputation for doing good funerals); still others are randomly delegated to me by the funeral home.

What each of these funeral situations has in common is the opportunity for both the priest and the congregation to serve as the presence of Christ. Not all communities see funerals as an opportunity for evangelism, but in my experience, our church has welcomed many a new member directly because of our approach to end-of-life ministries.

Years ago, I remember interning as a seminarian at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Ontario. As an eager student, I wanted to learn everything possible about ministry, including the more difficult aspects of pastoral care – illness, dying and funerals. St. Paul’s owns and operates one of London’s largest cemeteries: Woodland Cemetery. This presented me with lots of opportunity to experience funeral services. Due to the busy nature of the cathedral, many of the non-parishioner Woodland funerals were officiated by retired clergy.

It was raining during my first funeral at Woodland. I waited with the family at the graveside for an elderly priest to arrive. Without much in the way of introductions, the priest pulled out a laminated Book of Common Prayer funeral service card and jumped right into the service. I remember watching the faces of the family members as they listened to prayer after prayer without much in the way of reference to their loved one. At the end of the service, the priest put away the card, abruptly shook the hands of the bereaved family members and then returned to his car. It was in that moment that I came to realize how vulnerable families can be in these times of loss and how the Church can either embody the compassion of Christ or miss an opportunity to care for others in their time of need.

Funerals are an opportunity for congregations to model a form of hospitality that is rarely encountered in today’s society: a ministry of prayerful presence, of listening and of celebrating the life of one who has died. An opportunity for the proclamation of our faith to comfort the grieving through the sharing of our belief in life after death. 

My philosophy with celebration of life services is to do two things: 1) to express the love of Jesus, and 2) to ensure the liturgy is representative of the person who died, so that their family can grieve in ways that are familiar to them. I have spent countless hours sitting with families as they have reflected on the meaning of life, cherished the memories of their loved ones, hugged and cried through the moments that were painful, and, in the end, promised that they would have a safe and loving community that would walk with them through the loss.

Unlike the prayers of the priest from Woodland, whose presence disappeared the moment he walked away from the graveside, I believe that churches play an important role in journeying with those who have lost a loved one. An important part of the compassionate caring of Jesus that we offer is to invite those who are grieving to be cared for through ongoing prayer and worship.

Over the years, I’ve watched the members of St. George’s, The Blue Mountains, embrace both widows and widowers. I’ve watched the friendly faces sitting beside those in grief; I’ve admired the kind words, the food deliveries, and the invitations to cups of tea. Each of these expressions of compassion reflect the love of Jesus. Each tells the story of a church community that offers something different than the rest of the world: a pastoral presence of both priest and congregation.

And so, even though I dread each time I see the number of our local funeral home appear on my phone, I also remember that each of these calls is presenting me, and the congregation that serves with me, with the opportunity to embody Jesus to others in their moment of grief and need. May he always minister through us!

Rev. Canon Dr. Grayhame Bowcott is passionate about fostering congregational relationships and sharing our Anglican vocation with others. He serves as Rector of St. George’s, The Parish of The Blue Mountains and as Program Director for the Licentiate in Theology program at Huron University.