I'm an elder of my local Quaker meeting at the moment, and have had the privilege of being responsible for the holding of two funeral meetings for worship in the last year. One was for someone who died in her late 90s; the other for an active woman whose life felt cut short by illness. Both were powerful, raw, moving occasions.
A Quaker funeral is generally a simple affair; a silent meeting for worship to give thanks for the grace of God in the life of the person who has died. Sometimes there is a reading, or a song. Most of the time is given over to quiet reflection and thanksgiving.
Sometimes people – family members, Quakers from the meeting community, or friends of the person – will rise and speak in an act of ministry. Anyone can contribute. What they say may be prayers, memories of the deceased, expressions of thankfulness for their life, or words of comfort and solace for those left behind.
There is often a powerful sense of presence: of the soul of the deceased person among us, and of the spirit at work in their life and ours. The funeral ends when the time feels right – usually after no more than an hour – by all shaking hands with those around them.
For the living
It's common for a funeral to be the first experience of a Quaker meeting for many of those present. As an elder for the two funerals, I took care to explain what would happen, making sure everyone was included and felt they could contribute. And sure enough, we heard from family members and others who had never been to a Quaker meeting before. To offer ministry your words don't need to be finely-honed, any more than you don't necessarily have to wear your best clothes.
Funerals are for the living. For the bereaved, they are a way of holding the person they have lost in the Light, of completing our picture of them and their life. They are an expression of the love, care and upholding that the worshipping community can offer. They are a moment of release, of sending the deceased on their way with our love, and of holding them close to our hearts. After our death, our spirit can live on in the lives of others.
Sharing with others
Like everything else Quakers do, our funerals are a do-it-together affair. What greater gift can there be than to help mark the ending of the life of one of our community? And to know that when our time comes, the community we have been a part of will do the same for us.
From conversations after them, I know Quaker funerals make a powerful impression on those who attend. Perhaps this is part of our tradition we should share more widely with others.