Facing Death Together
by Alison Price / Iffat Rizvi
In one way I shouldn't have been surprised at the make-up of the congregation because it reflected the various faith communities who live in the parish in which I serve as Vicar. The surprise was that they were in my church and I was officiating at a funeral of a murdered woman whose mother is a Sikh and father a Muslim.
[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more
The young woman had been murdered back in March. Shockwaves had quickly run through the local community as the news of the death of this twenty-five-year-old trickled out.
Her family live opposite my church and I was on nodding acquaintance with them. Once I heard the news I went over to visit them. It was heart-breaking to see the mother struggling to accept that her only daughter was dead and comprehend the 'how?' and the 'why?' of the tragedy.
Recognise that there is only one race and that is of human beings.
On an overcast Friday morning in May 2003, as usual for a church funeral, I led the coffin through the west doors and down the long aisle to the chancel steps. On this long journey I had time to reflect on why my heart was beating faster than normal. It was because this funeral was not going to be a 'run of the mill' service, and as I reached the chancel steps and turned to face the congregation the visual impact highlighted its uniqueness. First, there were many young people in the congregation, reflecting the age of the deceased and the tragic circumstances in which she had lost her life; and second, there was a sea of pale-coloured saris.
I was a little surprised but rather pleased to be asked by the family to take the funeral: to be the officiant at this service was going to be challenging on many levels. My overriding objective was to support these members of my parish who had come to me for help in their terrible time of need. At the same time, I needed to maintain my own integrity as an Anglican priest.
The mother and I had a number of meetings and gradually the funeral service started to take shape. One of the early problems was that we didn't know when the funeral would take place, because the body wasn't being released by the coroner before all the forensic and autopsy requirements had been carried out. This wait was hard enough in itself, but in Muslim tradition the body of a deceased person should be interfered with as little as possible and the funeral should be within twenty-four hours of the death. This funeral took place sixty-two days after the death.
My meetings with the mother were in her front room where a large picture of her daughter was on display surrounded by flowers. The photograph reflected the mother's description of her daughter: beautiful and happy with her life before her. It seemed that the daughter didn't practise any particular religion but she was a spiritual person and was moved by living in the shadow of my church. Many of her friends wanted to make contributions to the service as a way of paying their respects to the friend they had so unexpectedly lost in the small hours of a March morning: so this humanitarian dimension, along with the Sikh and Muslim traditions and my own Christian integrity, had to be included in the service. Bearing all this in mind, the funeral service sheet was entitled 'A Funeral and Humanitarian Service'.
I needed to go back to basics and remind myself what a funeral service is aiming to do. First, it is to commend the deceased to God; second, to bring comfort to the family; and third, for the body to be disposed of with respect and dignity. Starting with the final point: for Muslims a body must be buried with the deceased facing the holy city of Makkah, and for Sikhs the ideal is cremation with the ashes submerged in a river. The final decision was that the deceased was to be placed in an above-ground vault.
In the Christian tradition we commend the soul of the deceased to God through Jesus Christ who through his resurrection opened the gate of heaven to all who believe, so that the deceased can enjoy eternal life with God. Muslims too believe in eternal life and that the soul leaves the body at the moment of death; and prayers include asking for God's mercy to be with the departed. The words from the Qur'an used at the graveside have the same flavour as the Christian words of committal.
bringing comfort to the bereaved is not channelled through the traditions of a particular faith but rather through secular music that held significance for the deceased and through tributes about his or her life.
Sikhs see death as a natural process and according to God•s will, and prayers over the body are said in this vein. The soul does not die; rather, death is a progression of the soul on its journey to God through a series of rebirths.
For many today, bringing comfort to the bereaved is not channelled through the traditions of a particular faith but rather through secular music that held significance for the deceased and through tributes about his or her life. With all funerals I believe there needs to be a balance; purely focusing on secular songs and being told how nice and kind a person was provides little of substance for those grieving to focus on and a rather superficial understanding of hope and comfort.
Now that I had it very clearly in my mind what the funeral was to achieve, I felt in a better place to help the mother compile all her thoughts and ideas into some sort of order that she was happy with and that would meet my objectives. The running order for the service went as follows. After the welcome, the Henry Scott Holland poem 'All Is Well' was to be read. Many families choose to have this particular poem read at a funeral service, and I know I am not the only cleric to have some problems with it, mainly because of the first line, 'Death is nothing at all'. Death in any circumstances is not 'nothing at all', and certainly not in this case when we were dealing with a twenty five-year-old who was shot dead. But the poem does have redeeming phrases in it where it talks about remembering the person as they were, calling them by their 'old familiar name', and about the fact that just because a person is out of sight it doesn't mean that they are out of mind. The service then would continue with a number of testimonies from family and friends, interspersed with music, mostly from CDs. Just to get all this music played in the right order was going to be no mean feat, but I knew I could rely on one of my teenage servers not to get flustered or make a mess of it. Once we knew the date of the funeral I had to write to his college to ask for him to have the day off, and thankfully they agreed.
The specifically Christian material that was used included a reading from 1 Corinthians 13, reminding us what love means and that at the moment we only see God dimly, but that in time, when we die, we will have the chance to see God face to face. The congregation were to say the traditional words of the Lord•s Prayer and I was to use the Christian words for the commendation.
Both the mother and I felt the service would give people the opportunity to pay their respects and also to grieve the death of this young woman. On the front cover of the order of service were the symbols of the major world faiths.
It had taken some time to compile the service, and still we didn't know when the body was going to be released. By now Easter was fast approaching, and on Easter Saturday I was due to get married and go on two weeks' honeymoon. So before I left I had to brief my colleague in the neighbouring parish, in case the body was released. It would then have been possible for the funeral to go ahead while I was away, disappointing though it would have been for me not to take the service, having got to know the family so well.
Well, at least I got to know the deceased's mother extremely well, and her two brothers - but her father was never involved in our discussions. I suspect he was dealing with what would happen at the mosque, and coping with his own grief in his own way and through his own beliefs and tradition. For the mother it seemed that the planning and putting together of the funeral service gave her a focus and a specific way to express her love for her daughter and the grief she felt.
Because of the Sikh belief that death is a natural process and part of God's will and thus that the deceased are progressing on their journey to God, public displays of grief are discouraged. Personal grieving at home is channelled through prayers, ideally with others, as this brings comfort. This might be manageable when the loved one who has died had lived a full and active life and died peacefully at a good age. But when you are not only grieving the loss of your beautiful young daughter on the threshold of life, but also trying to piece together how it was that she came to be shot at point-blank range through a car window, then not giving way to your grief, publicly or privately, is practically an impossible task.
In the Muslim tradition, also, too much outward showing of grief is discouraged, as Allah is the One who gives life and takes it away and it is therefore not for believers to question that. Traditionally, western Christians also 'put on a brave face' and are commended if they do not weep publicly. An emphasis on thanksgiving for the life of the deceased is encouraged, as is the conviction that they will now be at rest in God's presence, which is cause for rejoicing. Christians from other cultures such as African and Caribbean are much more likely to express their emotions openly and publicly.
Many cultures and faith traditions have specified times of mourning. This seems a good idea so that those who are bereaved and those who want to support them each know what to do and what to expect. In Muslim tradition official mourning lasts three days. There is an increase in devotion, and the bereaved receive visitors who bring their offers of condolences. On the third day the relatives visit the grave and recite extracts from the Qur'an. In Sikh tradition the initial mourning period lasts for ten to fourteen days, and during this time the entire Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy writings, are read. 'Official' mourning may then last another couple of weeks, during which the women and men continue to wear sober-coloured clothes and turbans.