Planning Goodbyes


In ages past, every funeral included a shiny wooden casket, large flower arrangements and soft organ music playing in the background. For Christians in Canada—especially those in the Reformed tradition—they also included Psalm 23, the Lord’s Prayer, and hymns like Abide With Me. Everyone wore black and knew exactly what to expect: a visit to the funeral home to greet the family, followed by a worship service the next day. There was always a minister in a clerical collar and a reception with sandwiches and squares made by the women’s group at the church.

Those practices have begun to change.

Now, in the Ontario suburb where we live, very few people identify themselves as religious. Some may claim a loose affiliation with a particular faith or a Christian denomination (“My mother grew up in Scotland and I think she was Presbyterian”) but most are lost when it comes to planning their goodbyes. Many have little or no experience in attending funerals or religious ceremonies. One of the most common things a funeral director hears families ask is, “What do people usually do?”

We also notice that those attending funerals are different. We saw a young woman come to a funeral service wearing cut-off jeans and flip-flops. We were at a service that concluded with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog. He was a good friend of mine …” We heard a man’s cell phone ring in the middle of the service and then watched while he got up and left to take the call.

More alarming is the trend toward choosing to do nothing at all. An increasing number of families simply elect to have their beloved cremated or buried with no family gathering and no ritual of any kind. There is no obituary to alert friends and neighbours to the need for care and comfort, and there is no opportunity for the community to reflect on the solemn passage from life to death. And yes, what you’ve heard is true: despite their best efforts, funeral homes are sometimes left with unclaimed cremated remains that families seem to have forgotten.

Within the church we lament that our traditions are being eroded. We can no longer rely on “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” to provide simple comfort. And yet we know that funerals invite the community to gather in a way that provides comfort to the grief-stricken. They allow a minister to publically speak words of hope. They provide an opportunity to weep, remember and pray together, deepening relationships and strengthening social bonds. They insist that we face the brevity of life and invite us to live with purpose and reverence.

Since this is what we believe, it makes sense that we are disappointed when families choose to host happy hour at the pub to celebrate dad’s life, or want nothing more than a private scattering of ashes on Aunt Sheila’s favourite beach. But we would be foolish to despair. In fact, if we are paying close attention, there is a deep yearning for ritual and spiritual comfort at the time of death.

We have met a large number of families who would like some kind of spiritual or religious leader to help them lead the funeral but are afraid of what that might mean. They ask the funeral director if there is someone “who isn’t a Bible thumper.” Some share stories of obnoxious or insensitive pastors, like the one who berated men for not crying enough, or the one who spoke the wrong name at the graveside. It is telling that often families thank the clergy person afterwards, remarking with relief, “That was much better than I expected.” Perhaps we should not be surprised that some families now use celebrants—men and women trained in public speaking who will read poems or introduce eulogies but have no religious affiliation.

The funeral industry is shifting, too, in an attempt to respond to the different ways that people are seeking comfort. There is jewelry that can be marked with the fingerprint of a loved one and teddy bears with a tiny pocket that seals in a small portion of ashes. Cremated remains can even be made into diamonds.

Families are increasingly creative, whether or not they have any church memory. They set up displays of dad’s trophies or grandpa’s woodcarvings, or they bring in flowers from mom’s garden. One family even brought a Harley Davidson motorcycle to be placed at the front of the chapel. Other families give away mementos, like at the funeral of a car lover where every guest was sent home with a small model car or the one where grandma’s famous cookie recipe was distributed. All of them seem to be trying to find ways to communicate that their beloved was special, unique, important.

Even among families who claim that they aren’t terribly religious, their created rituals speak of spiritual things. Lighting a candle in a dark time invites hope. Doves or butterflies released at the graveside speak of resurrection; so do stories of dragonflies and changing seasons. Echoes of baptism or communion are even present sometimes: one wife poured a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee (double double!) on the urn before it was buried. Another family asked that glasses of Coke be passed out at the end of the service. Someone made a toast and everyone cried, “Cheers!”

This is where we see that the church has a vital role to play. While it is tempting to mock those who choose unusual ways to memorialize the ones they love, we are better off interpreting those spiritual leanings and the desire to celebrate life. We can help families to embrace meaningful rituals. We can share from our deep well of tradition. We can invite families to mourn in ways that are lasting, hopeful, and rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ—even if we’ve never done it that way before.


About Kristine O’Brien and Patrick O’Brien

Rev. Kristine O’Brien is minister at Trafalgar, Oakville, Ont., and her husband, Patrick O’Brien works as a funeral director at Oakview Funeral Home.