How do we face death? When someone we love dies, how do we re-create hope and meaningful life? Some feel that
rituals of death are burdensome or irrational. A growing minority in our culture leave a will or instructions asking
that no one hold a funeral. But good religious rituals of mourning and burial (and other appropriate human customs
around death) invite us to feel the power of grief and may help us find a way through it. Mourners need the actions of
grieving (like tears) as well as shared gestures of grieving like wearing black to funerals or lighting candles for the
dead. What funeral gestures, customs, and rituals will help people feel and then move through the pain of losing
someone they loved? Episcopalians haven’t always asked this question.
In 1970, early in the process of liturgical experimentation that led to the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common
Prayer, I was among a few seminarians invited to attend a discussion group of liturgists and hospital chaplains who
were discussing the draft pastoral offices. This study group had recruited as facilitator a wry and fiercely acute
Jewish psychiatrist who had been a rabbinical student before he went to medical school. In the sessions I attended, the
group was looking at the earliest draft of a new Episcopal funeral liturgy. The facilitator started the sessions by
quoting the drafters’ directions, which stated that grieving was contrary to mature faith, because Jesus’
resurrection destroyed death’s power. Therefore, Easter texts and Easter hymns would be used for proper
After the facilitator had read these various texts he closed the book, looked around the circle, and said, “Do
you have any idea how many patients these funerals will send my way? I appreciate the business, but I wonder if
that’s what you intend to do. Give me whatever theological explanation you want, but I tell you: this burial
service repudiates sadness and grief, and that will only brew up cancers, heart attacks, and suicides.”
The drafting committees heard him and other experts like him, so the finished Prayer Book funeral texts do
acknowledge grief, loss, sorrow, discouragement, and confusion, and include prayers for patience and for healing.
However, the 1979 Prayer Book firmly states: “The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its
meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised.” (Book of
Common Prayer, p. 507)
These Prayer Book discussions were part of a wider cultural and religious phenomenon. As committees of liturgical
specialists were crafting new texts, others within the Episcopal Church began thinking about the rituals of dying and
grieving. After Jessica Mitford’s scathing exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death,
church reformers of various persuasions tried to create or re-create rituals, hoping to reclaim burial and grief from
The St. Francis Burial Society, an Episcopal group of civil rights activists, sold blueprints for a “plain
pine box” so people could make their own coffins. The plans included specifications for temporary shelves so you
could store your wines in it until it was needed for your burial. A pamphlet published by Associated Parishes, a Prayer
Book reform group, suggested that mourners offer prayers as they washed the body and prepared it for burial, and
encouraged parish communities to transport the coffin from church to burial in a parishioner’s pick-up truck
instead of a hired hearse. These ideas seemed startling and new, though some people advocating them recalled their
similarity to customs from their grandparents’ time. If 1970s culture didn’t offer us much grieving ritual,
we seem to have even less available to us now.
Many Americans die in hospitals, and many Americans have never seen a dead body except on television or in the
newspaper. Death is so sanitized or distanced for us that glimpses of nineteenth-century American grieving can only
astonish us. Photographers took formal photographs of the dead laid out in bed, as if asleep. People hung those photos
on their walls as memorials. Often hair from the dead was woven into macramé designs to encircle the photos. If a
mother and child died in childbirth, the portrait might show the two of them lying side by side. Any household that
could afford it had a separate room called a parlor, with a door designed to accommodate a coffin, for a wake. What we
call today a “living room” marks the twentieth-century effort of architects and builders to strip the
parlor of its burial and mourning associations.
While the twentieth-century funeral industry tried to redefine the tasks of mourning so people would let the experts
handle death for them, as painlessly as possible, my experience as a priest has shown me that people are drawn to their
own rituals to express and experience grief.
When I was working in Idaho in a small town congregation, one of two Episcopal pastors in the whole county, I
presided at a funeral at least once a month. Often I buried strangers who were only nominally Episcopalian. As the
village parson, I discerned what the supplicant mourners wanted and needed. Observing like an anthropologist, I also
saw there were moments when everyone knew and expected what “ought to” happen, and also moments when people
were less certain or secure.
One very solid cultural mourning ritual seemed evident to everyone. All traffic on the country roads and highways
would stop right in the lane until the funeral procession passed. Usually drivers stopped as soon as they saw the
hearse, not waiting for a reminder from the procession’s police escort. I saw tractors on the highway do exactly
the same thing. Most men would remove their cowboy hat or baseball cap to “pay respect” until coffin and
mourners passed by.
Another ritual that happened with no prompting at all was “covered
dish.” After any burial the mourners would return from the
graveside to the home of the person who had died, and food would
appear. People left the cemetery and detoured to their own kitchens
to retrieve hot casseroles and soups and steaming hams or roasts.
The grieving family set out a table to accommodate the huge quantities
of food the mourners brought with them. Each person adding a contribution
to the covered dish array would comment approvingly on how much
food had appeared, and a member of the bereaved family would say
something about how the person who had died would have enjoyed
sharing the spread. Everyone made an effort to eat heartily.
The human need to express grief through ritual, which I had experienced so strongly in rural America, was also
strongly evident after the World Trade Center devastation. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, while the work
crews were breaking and shoveling out rubble and recovering bodies from the World Trade Center site, pairs of Episcopal
volunteer chaplains were on site, on call for counseling and prayer.
These Episcopal priests and deacons describe how quickly police and firefighters developed a funerary ritual around
the painful task of delivering found bodies or body parts to the on-site morgue for identification. When the crew found
remains, a signal quickly stopped work throughout the site, and the huge noise of earthmovers, shovels, and cutters was
stilled. Men stood silently by the equipment, no matter where they were on the mounds or in the deepening pit. Workers
placed whatever remains they had found on a stretcher, and draped it with a flag. Then they turned to the chaplain to
say a prayer. Stretcher-bearers and chaplain climbed up the ramp out of the crater to stop at its edge again for the
chaplain to say a prayer. Two more blocks’ walk alongside the vast hole brought the remains to the morgue for
final identification. Only after the chaplain had offered another prayer at the morgue did the site return to work.
Unlike my congregation in Idaho, and certainly unlike the construction workers and the fire and police officers at
the World Trade Center site, St. Gregory’s young congregation has experienced relatively few deaths. In the early
days of the AIDS crisis, when some San Francisco churches were burying parishioners several times a month, we had only
two deaths from our extraordinarily healthy group of gay men. Most of our experience of funerals was burying
parishioners’ grandparents or parents.
At St. Gregory’s we have interpreted very broadly the 1979 Book of Common Prayer’s instructions
that funerals be considered Easter liturgies. Our grieving rituals at St. Gregory’s grew out of our Good Friday
service, and that Good Friday service grew, in part, from the Russian Orthodox Good Friday, which in turn has shaped
the Orthodox Office (liturgy) for the Burial of the Dead.
I noted in the April
1997 issue of this publication that our Good Friday liturgy
speaks in a quieter voice than Easter, but tells the same story:
God tenderly and willingly drawing human suffering to heart and
so transforming us. Though Good Friday includes the crushing recollection
of the suffering that people inflict on one another and invites
us into the presence of our deepest grief, in its essence, Good
Friday, like Easter, tells of Jesus' loving freedom and the power
of God, which is greater than our greatest longings. In both Good
Friday and Easter we hope for and glimpse God's gift of resurrection
that overcomes suffering, loss, and grief. In both Good Friday
and Easter we hope for and glimpse the radiant love that cannot
stay sealed in a tomb. Though they speak with different voices,
the two services say the same thing to us. Children see these
connections immediately, as I learned after Art Harrington’s
funeral. Art, a recently retired engineer who had helped us find
our way through the process of building our new church, was one
of our first active members to die. After his funeral, a child
said, “What we did for Art was the same as we do for Jesus
on Good Friday.”
St. Gregory’s Good Friday service, including a description
of its ritual and copies of all the congregational music, is available
on the web at www.saintgregorys.org.
Many of the hymns and texts are quite tender, with tones like
lullabies. The congregation either addresses itself to Jesus,
as in, “You were naked and cold in death,” or speaks
in his voice, singing his words in the Passion narrative together,
as well as the whole Psalm the Gospel writer puts on his lips,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
For Good Friday and at funeral liturgies, the church hangings and altar cloth are black, and the clergy wear black
vestments. And in both liturgies the St. Gregory's congregation lays flowers on the altar, either around an icon of
Jesus' burial or around the urn of ashes. On Good Friday and at funerals, the congregation dances to the table, as we
do every Sunday. Good Friday also includes solemn prostrations, when choir, clergy, and everyone who can kneels and
touches forehead to the floor during the chanting of the Orthodox hymn, “We bow to your sufferings Lord Jesus
Christ,” sung three times to a dark Arabic (Syrian Orthodox) tone, until the cantor finally sings, “Now
show us your holy resurrection.”
There are important differences between Good Friday and a burial, of course. The burial is a pastoral office, and
focuses on someone we know who has died. It offers a way to grieve and also a way for the community to give and receive
For a burial, the clergy enter carrying the urn of ashes (and often a photo of the person who has died) and place
these on the altar with the icon of Mary, Jesus’ mother, embracing him as he is wrapped and prepared for burial.
The beginning of the liturgy is very like an ordinary Sunday with hymns, service music, psalm and readings, and the
preacher helping us acknowledge sorrow and ask how we hope in God when we are grieving. Then the preacher crafts a
careful invitation after the sermon to allow family and friends to remember and tell truthful, personal stories of the
one who has died without artificial eulogizing (from “eu” and “logos” or “lego,” a
“eulogy” is a funeral oration that “speaks well” of the deceased, speaking only the good even
if the real person disappears).
Unlike our Good Friday service, funerals typically include Eucharist. After scripture readings, sermon and sermon
sharing, and prayers, we will put the bread and wine on the table with the ashes and icon as we gather for Eucharist.
Because the congregation gathers close around the altar table, most people can see or at least have glimpsed both the
photo of the person we are mourning and the icon of Christ.
After sharing Eucharist we continue the funeral with our Good Friday burial devotions, the touching and flowering of
the urn, photo, and icon, and then we dance our carol. One of my favorite hymns for this is “Jesus, Son of
Mary,” number 357 in the 1982 hymnal, particularly the lines, “Often were they wounded in the deadly
strife./Heal them great Physician with the gift of life./Every taint of falsehood, frailty and decay,/Good and gracious
Savior, cleanse and wash away.”
To dance this as a carol, we sing it slowly to the rhythmic version of the tune from the 1940 hymnal. And then at
the end of the Eucharist, rather than Good Friday’s silent procession out the doors to the street, the
congregation carries the urn of ashes out the other great doors to the garden courtyard, past the baptistery and to the
columbarium, to commit the ashes to their resting place.
Our funeral rituals help people cry, just as the wailing crowd of mourners in Judea cried when Lazarus died. The
rituals bring us together physically and literally: we touch the urn that contains the person’s ashes; we touch
one another (at the peace and during the carol); and we are touched by our own bodies’ responses of inarticulate
feeling. Year by year, with each succeeding funeral or Good Friday or Easter or ordinary Sunday at the same table, the
layering of memories and gestures makes room for sorrow, for remembering, in time perhaps for healing, and
finally—in that more complete and truthful setting—for joy.