The chatter is getting louder. More voices are joining in all the time as people of all ages and from all backgrounds begin to talk more openly about death, dying and funerals. And Christians have much to contribute: after all in Easter services every year, if not every Sunday, we remember and celebrate our great hope that death is not the end, and that God will bring comfort for the bereaved.
And now the big conversation is really emerging in our culture. The taboo around death and dying is being pushed and challenged . Almost every week there are articles, opinion pieces and comments about death and funerals, sometimes triggered by the death of well-known individuals, and sometimes triggered by personal events. Movements such as Death Café are growing quickly as people begin to face the issues, whether making good financial plans or talking more widely about bereavement and loss.
Research undertaken on behalf of the Archbishops’ Council nearly four years ago told us that the Church of England is well-placed to help people have this kind of conversation. One of the respondents actually suggested that a small group gathered together would be a good idea and last year Church House Publishing launched GraveTalk, a resource that is part of the Archbishops’ Council work around funerals. GraveTalk has been a hugely popular tool to get people of all ages starting a conversation about matters of life and death. It is being used by care professionals, funeral directors and many others who work outside the church. Anne Lee, who works with Hudson Training, Taunton to assess health and social care apprentices and care-workers , finds it an invaluable tool in helping young people address the issues they might encounter: “The GraveTalk questions help young people to be comfortable with talking about death and dying and helps them think about some of the big things that happen in their own lives.”
Since being piloted in 2014 with Lichfield Diocese, hundreds of GraveTalk events have been led by local churches, sometimes with congregations, sometimes in public spaces. Recently, a vicar from Rochester Diocese commented, “ I wish I had done this sooner! Once people started talking it was difficult to stop them. We will be holding another GraveTalk soon.” GraveTalk is being used in hospices, prisons, churches and in local pubs and coffee shops. I found myself in a lengthy conversation one evening with my 22 year old niece, as she talked about the loss of grandparents, pets, the impact of a friend’s death, working with dying people and her own hopes for what difference her life might make in the world. In and through that conversation we also talked about faith and hope, and the great love of God in Jesus Christ.
The theme of this year’s Dying Awareness week is ‘The Big Conversation’ and, above all, churches need to be holding conversations, joining in those that are happening in their communities, contributing to local media and social media. It is also about creating a space where people can share their experiences, thoughts and emotions. It is not about holding a course with answers or a programme to complete, but is about allowing people to share their thoughts, however hesitant. The Church of England, indeed most churches, can provide space and are usually able to organise refreshment and hospitality, which are key components of a successful conversation. But more importantly we bring not just our own experience of loss and bereavement, but the experience of walking with generations of people as they go through the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ [Psalm 23]. We also bring the experience of helping people think through the big questions that emerge when we start talking about death, questions about purpose, destiny and value.
The conversation around death and funerals will often involve sharing stories of those who have shaped our own lives and our feelings about their death. It may involve expressing faith and doubt about what happens after death, and it may involve ideas for our own funeral service. The conversation should not just be about our own wishes – it should then give people confidence to go and talk to family and friends about how they would want our life to be remembered. A funeral is a time to give thanks for a life that has meant much, but it also a time to grieve that loss and to think about our hope in a future. As Christians, we have a sure and certain hope in the resurrection, and talking about death, dying and funerals is a good place to share that hope.
Events are simple to organise: you need a room, some tea and cake, and the GraveTalk questions may provide a starting point. Sometimes it is helpful to have a place for reflection, a prayer tree or a candle stand. Sometimes it is useful to have information from local support groups or funeral providers and to make sure there is accurate information about the process, costs and practicalities when someone dies.
But however it happens, the important thing is to be part of the conversation. People are beginning to talk – and as a church we have something to contribute. Whether it’s in Dying Awareness week or later in the year, there’s a space and a place to talk and to listen. Be confident and do it.
For more information see www.churchofenglandfunerals.org
(An edited version of this article first appeared in the Church Times)
GraveTalk is published by Church House Publishing and available from www.churchsupporthub.org and bookshops.