A Difficult Subject!

I want to take the opportunity to encourage you all to stop and think about something we are not particularly good at talking about.  It is not meant to be alarmist; I am not morbid or pessimistic by any stretch of the imagination.  Yes we are in the midst of a pandemic that has caused a great deal of grief, something that has largely been hidden behind hospital doors far from our everyday experience under “lockdown”; but the vast majority of us have little to fear from Covid 19. Our job is to protect others, especially the most vulnerable, and take care of ourselves.  But that does not change the fact that we need to be honest with ourselves and those we love about the big questions in life and in death, things we often kick into the long grass and avoid thinking about.  I share my thoughts with you now in the hope that it will initiate a conversation and spare many the grief that I have witnessed first-hand from bereaved families time and time again, especially in these difficult and uncertain times when the “normal” way of doing things is not possible.  Life has gotten a lot more complicated these past several weeks, but there is something we can do to bring peace of mind to those we care about.
One of the “hazards” of being ordained is that your own family will call upon you to take their weddings and funerals.  I can’t legally take a wedding in America and the funerals have been too close emotionally to take the lead.  When my father-in-law died suddenly in March my sister-in-law asked if I would take the service.  I politely declined, being too close, and aware that my place was not upfront but beside Ben.  I did of course offer advice and suggestions and we put together a lovely service of celebration.  Unfortunately, by the time the service was to take place, the Government was encouraging everyone over seventy to stay at home.  No one would be joining the immediate family and the grandchildren would not be attending either.  Rather than postpone things we went ahead with a simple committal at the crematorium, hoping to have something more celebratory when the “all clear” is sounded.  That little service at Taunton Deane crematorium was my first experience of what has now become standard procedure for funerals.  Four of us sitting apart in a large chapel for the fifteen-minute service that left me feeling we hadn’t done what we ought to.  It was very unsatisfying, so bleak and cold.  Even now, I often forget that Keith has even died, so little an impression the service made.  Unfinished business, loose strings. 
The funerals I have taken since then are much the same.  Services limited to a few close family without the extended family and friends who comfort us.  Putting together a service and learning about the person who has died is now done over the phone and by email, not in person.  Today the only time I actually minister face-to-face is over the coffin at the crematorium.  A very strange state of affairs, but one that looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.  My feeling is that there will be a lot of unprocessed grief and the subsequent damage this may cause to our mental and spiritual health.  The loss is still the same, but the way we deal with it is changing as we don’t have access to the people and rituals that help us deal with losing someone we love.  This will have implications on our life together as Church and how we serve the wider community at this uncertain time. 
For now, though I’d like us to consider something a bit more personal.  My father-in-law, like many people, had left no indication of what he wanted after he died.  The majority of funerals I take leave the family unprepared and uncertain as to what they should do because there wasn’t any discussion beforehand.  That’s not unusual because we, as a culture, are uncomfortable talking about death.  But what really struck home was that I remembered a conversation with my own father the last time I was home.  My Dad is a very pragmatic and no fuss kind of person.  He told me that everything was “in hand” for his own funeral arrangements having decided to be cremated and have his ashes scattered over the old farm.  The money was already set aside in a special account my brother had access to.  Not only that, but he had already discussed what he did and didn’t want should he wind up in hospital unable to verbalise his own decisions about the care he did and didn’t want to receive.  I was a bit taken aback, but with hindsight I realised that he was simply caring for us, taking the burden of decision-making off our shoulders.  There would also be less opportunity for friction within the family because we would stick to my father’s wishes in life and in death.  I came away from that reminded at how wise my father is, and grateful that he had done the work for us.  I thought now was as good an opportunity to do the same for myself.
My Benjamin is very sanguine and level-headed, he engages his brain first when making decisions whereas I always go with the heart (which has led to some rather foolish and expensive mistakes on my part!)  I initiated the conversation around what I wanted should I end up in hospital unable to make my own decisions, as well as what I wanted if (when!) my time is up.  To my great surprise we have VERY different ideas on all counts.  I am much the minimalist when it comes to medical intervention, with an eye to quality of life over simply being alive.  Ben would have all the technology and money the NHS could throw his way, avoiding mortality at all costs.  He would keep me at home forever should I become totally incapacitated by dementia or anything else, rather than “put” me in a care home.  I’d rather be in a care home than run him ragged looking after me.  He also, regrettably, wasn’t keen on the idea of spending eternity under the oak tree with my family either, in spite of my point that we have always lived close to London for his work and that the least he could do was rest forever in the red clay of Carolina. 
To be honest it wasn’t the easiest conversation, but we are much clearer and confident of doing the right thing by one another because we have had the conversation.  It acknowledged the reality of our own mortality and how we ought to be prepared rather than dither and ignore the inevitable.  The important thing is that we both know what the other wants both sides of eternity.  There is no uncertainty or fear of getting it wrong because we’ve both been heard.  I want to encourage you to make your wishes clear to those who will decide on your behalf when you can no longer make your own decisions known.  It may very well save much pain and anguish for those you love, and that power rests in your hands.