The funeral of Philip Bradbourn has caused a stir in the press recently. The MEP died just before Christmas and had a cremation service in January. It was reported that there had been a mix up at the mortuary and in fact the body of Philip Bradburn had been taken and was contained in the coffin that should have had Philip Bradbourn. The Prime Minister has commented; the family has said that hearing this news had intensified their grief. I think any of us would feel exactly the same in their situation.
However, to hear some Christians talk about what happens when we die, it shouldn’t matter at all. There is a vague belief that our bodies don’t matter: it is our souls that go to be with God in heaven. But this has nothing to do with orthodox Christian belief: we believe that on death we will be given a new resurrection body – just as Jesus was raised with a body on that first Easter Sunday.
I am reminded of a story of a young American parish priest who was sent to a funeral parlour to comfort the mother of a teenage girl who had tragically died. As the mother gazed at her daughter in the coffin, he tried to comfort her by telling her that ‘It’s OK, that’s not her, it’s just a shell’. He got a sharp slap from the mother for his pains. ‘I’ll tell you when it’s just a shell’, the woman countered, ‘for now and until I tell you otherwise, she’s my daughter’.
We are not just shells in death. If we were, it wouldn’t matter if the wrong shell was burnt in our place. We know that is wrong because our bodies matter as much in the rituals of death as in the living of life.
I know how careful funeral directors are when they arrange a funeral and how much respect they give the bodies of the dead. That is why this story is so tragic. As someone who takes funerals regularly, I am required to check that the name plate on the coffin matches the name of the person whose funeral I intend to take. Of course, I can very rarely verify that the person inside is the same person, but that is why I rely on all those who have been part of the process to ensure that they are.
Our bodies matter in death as much as in life. That is why I am uneasy when families go to the crematorium before a funeral service in church, because they don’t want the coffin in church. Our coffins remind us of our bodies, and should be given all the love and respect that we give to our live bodies. I pray we never get to the situation that is so common in the USA when cremation happens in a factory unit unattended by any family and at some indeterminate point afterwards, a memorial service may or may not happen.
I like to remind my congregation of the importance of thinking about their funerals and how they want that ritual in death to go. I hope that in those decisions, they recognise the importance of their bodies in death as they have been so important in life. I’m not sure how the violation of the bodies of Mr Bradbourn and Mr Bradburn can be put right in death, but we should certainly pray for their families that they might find healing and hope in their grief.