notre dame montreal

Sermon for those who are bereaved - All Saints 2008

The Rev Charles Royden

Preached at the service of commemoration of the faithful departed.

A week or so ago I was telephoned by an interviewer from the BBC. He was working on a piece for the radio about the proliferance of shrines at roadsides. He asked for my views on these places along the roadside where people leave flowers or small crosses with flowers to remember somebody who has died.

Surprisingly before I answered, perhaps trying to give me a steer in the right direction, he offered his own feelings in this regard. He said that he believed that the place for grieving was the cemetery and the preponderance of these places was unnecessary.

I considered my position for only a second or two before making it clear that I totally disagreed. I am troubled by a society in which we are so uncomfortable with such displays of grief following the tragic loss of those who have died.

Our dead do not cease to exist in our hearts. Neither do they depart from the love of God. So why should we forget them? Or why should we have our remembrance constrained to the cemetery?

I later looked at the website of BRAKE the road safety charity and saw that it strongly supported the right of families to be able if they wished to place flowers and other memorials at the place where their loved ones died. These memorials are of comfort to many families and across the world, bereaved people find that such gestures and ceremonies which enable them to honour a person who has died are very significant in the grieving process, particularly if the death was traumatic, violent and unexpected.

Of course such open displays of grief are considered an intrusion by many who feel uncomfortable with death and want it confined and controlled.

For the same reason there are some readings which I find difficult at funerals
Death is nothing at all, - I don’t like that one,
You can shed tears that she is gone, - I don’t like that one either

The reason why I find these difficult is because they are

  • Cheer up readings.
  • Come on pull yourself together readings
  • Don’t wallow in misery they have gone to a better place readings !

The simple truth is that when we lose somebody we love we do shed tears and we have every right to do so. Death is particularly unpleasant, it is the very worst thing that we can experience and for that reason we have a right to leave flowers wherever we please.

Our society is distinctly uncomfortable with those who grieve and mourn. The expression of emotion is judged weak, and at funerals those who hold it together are admired.
The Christian writer and theologian C.S. Lewis wrote following the death of his wife

"An odd by-product of my loss is that I'm aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet…."

Christian teaching however is helpful for the bereaved, because it doesn't pretend. The Christian scriptures tell us that grief is real and we are right to be angry and upset when we lose people who are special to us. Jesus himself we are told cried when Lazarus died. Jesus didn't try to explain it away as God's will, 'only the good die young' or some other pious platitude. Jesus cried real tears like us.

At every funeral I take I pray for the bereaved and I usually pray

‘visit them with your comfort and peace, and after a time wipe the tears from their eyes.’

It is a recognition that God can be with us in our mourning and sorrow and there will be suffering to go through before we feel anything like cheering up. God will be with us but he will not be chivvying us up, telling us it will all be OK, rather he will be crying with us.

The Bible offers solid comfort because it takes death seriously. It doesn't pretend that it is of small consequence. Death is recognised for the enemy which it is in the Bible. It is the most horrible thing that happens to anyone, and the death of someone you love is among the most horrible things that can happen to you. And taking this seriously means that there is, despite what we're often told, good reason to cry.

It is of enormous importance for many people to remember those who have died, to pray for them and to continue to love them. The messages which are left on cards often speak powerfully of a belief that beyond the time and tears of this world, our loved who have died have gone to meet with God.

Of course we live in a society which is increasingly less comfortable with the idea of life after death. The belief in life after death has consequences for life before death. The awareness of God, trust in the promises of heaven, this raises serious issues for those who deny that there is anything more to life than the physical and material.

It was over twenty years ago that I first saw roadside shrines in Greece. Flowers were left, candles were sometimes burning at the verge where somebody had died suddenly in a tragic road accident. The difference of course was that this was a catholic country and an overt religious faith was acceptable.

November in a month for remembering. We have Remembrance Sunday, which is increasingly becoming a time for remembering not only those who have died in war, but those who have died. In the church we have All Saints day and All Souls, which are the feasts of every saint and every soul who has died and gone into the eternal love of God.

When some people die their lives are immortalised in stone. There may be special days upon which they are remembered. Others have poems written about them, some result in long biographies. However others die hardly noticed. The vast majority of us are just ordinary people and our ordinary lives do not merit great biographies. However these special days ensure that we have time to set aside for those who are special not in the memory of the wider community, but special to us and special to God.

Today we remember our dead, all those who once belonged to us and from whom we are now separated. We give thanks for those who by their lives lit up our lives and those others who loved them. We remember the special ways in which their lives touched ours. We acknowledge that their passing has left a gap in our life and so we feel a continuing sense of loss, not for a week or a month or even a year. We will never get over it, not so long as we ourselves draw breath.

Yet our loyalty to our dead is not just about missing and longing. This is not about being mawkish or sentimental. It is also a sign of our trust in God and his promises.
We look back with thanks , we look forward with hope

When we pray God grant eternal rest, we show our trust in God for the future.