For only the second time this year, I had a funeral to do this week. It was of a man, born a Catholic, who spent much of his life as a seafarer, and in his old age, he'd started reading the Qu'ran and practising prayer Muslim style. A few days before his death he was visited by two local Mosque officials, and he made his submission to Allah, all of which left his family a bit bewildered about what to do, since he's stipulated in his will that he wanted to be cremated - not a very Muslim thing to do.
When I was in Geneva, the Welsh friend of an Iranian woman got in touch and asked if I would do her friend's funeral. She still believed and practised Muslim prayer at home but had an abhorrence of Iranian religious personnel. Her three daughters were content for a Christian priest to do their mother's service. We included some CD tracks of the call to prayer, and a reading of texts from the burial ritual in Arabic and English. On this occasion there was no Arabic speaker around and no CD, so I had to use the English versions of the prayers, and readings from the Old Testament and Psalm, with a brief Gospel passage about the compassion and unconditional acceptance received by all who turn to God.
In several areas of common human experience Christian, Jewish and Muslims each want to express the same things to God, and prayers are adaptable or interchangable. It seemed right to reassure the forty mourners of this, and to say that conversion even if it seems hard for us to think of it as anything other than a rejection, if it leads a fuller deeper relationship with God, is a work of grace, by the One who moves in mysterious ways through our lives. I'm not quite sure what the three daughters (again, co-incidentally) made of my explanations, but then they had plenty to deal with coping with their children and other family members.
They'd agreed to the visit of two Mosque officials who arrived ahead of the ceremony to wash the dead man's body and clothe him in a shroud. Was this OK? They wanted to be reassured. I had to explain that putting someone in ordinary clothes was something of a recent innovation, at one time working class families couldn't have afforded to see the late beloved's clothes go with them. When I started out in ministry, the shroud was still accepted convention for people of all religions. How quickly this has changed to the point where the custom has all but been forgotten - except in horror films.
When we traipsed out of the Roath Court Funeral Chapel, several old guys, probably ex-mariners or workmates, expressed their appreciation for what I'd said, or maybe it was for not glossing over things and pretending this was a Christian man's funeral when it was something different.
Just a believing man trying to work out what it was right for him to be and to do, and not letting himself be carried along by the flow.
It strikes me how often in the life of a pastor, the response one is called to make to a real situation isn't matched by the options available in the book of rules or the variety of liturgical texts. Having them is more of a safety net (or trampoline for take-off?). They give a basis in values and attitudes towards caring for people and accompanying them in the messy realities of real life and death situations. Starting from a dialogue with ones own tradition reveals what is relevant and what is not is always educative and creative. It makes the job worthwhile.