Anointing Each Other: Funeral Planning at St. Augustine’s, Wilmette and Grace, Sterling

March 11, 2015

Last year was rough for the people of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Wilmette. In six months, the congregation that includes about 140 people on Sunday mornings buried 10 members.

But at funeral after funeral, the Rev. Kristin White, rector of St. Augustine’s since 2012, had parishioners approach her after the service and say, “I want you to do that at my funeral."

“There was a kind of opening,” White recalls. “People became willing to talk about their own funeral, their own death. Had we not been in that really hard space, it would have been easier not to talk about it.”

Taking that opening, White announced an evening workshop devoted to funeral planning. She enlisted the help of two women who host a reception for every funeral at St. Augustine’s and talked with the Rev. Peg Williams of Grace Episcopal Church in Sterling, who had recently held a similar event.

The result, planned in partnership with the church’s associate rector, the Rev. Bryan Cones, was a comfort food potluck on the evening of All Saints Day. Forty people showed up, including some new members who had joined St. Augustine’s after attending one of the recent funerals.

“There was a lot of starch involved,” says White of the potluck fare, which included hearty portions of macaroni and cheese and chicken potpie.

After dinner and a prayer, Cones opened the evening by telling the story of a former colleague who had what Cones called “a holy death.” The man, who was a liturgist and religious educator, had planned a church service attended by more than 100 people in which the people he loved anointed him while he was close to death. 

Participants then told their own stories of holy deaths. “Some people told stories that were quite recent,” White said. “It involved a lot of trust. It was lovely.”

After dinner, White brought out hymnals and funeral planning worksheets. People called out hymns to the organist and choirmaster, Thomas Alm, who played them on a piano while people sang. People talked about which ones they liked and which ones they didn’t like.

Next, White spoke about the Bible verses recommended for funerals in the Book of Common Prayer and people discussed those. “Some people hated all of them,” she said. “I said, ‘that’s fine’ and suggested other readings that were important to them.”

At the end of the evening, the group went into the church, lit candles, and people put their worksheets on the altar during a brief liturgy. Everyone went home with a folder that included a fresh copy of the worksheet, information about the parish’s columbarium and its planned giving program, guidelines for preparing a basic will, and lists of Bible readings and hymns often used at funerals.

White, who made copies of the worksheets and returned the originals the next Sunday, now has close to 30 funeral planning worksheets in varying stages of preparation.

“It was one of those times that reminds us that church is a place where we can have conversations that we’re not likely to have in other settings,” said White. “There was some laughter and some fears in the room, but also a collective sense of being held.”

As a participant said several weeks later, “You know, what it felt like was going on in that room is that we were anointing each other.” 

Showing the Path

The year before White held her workshop, Williams had mounted a funeral planning effort at Grace Sterling, where she had been a member and then a deacon before becoming rector in January 2013.

“We’re an older church,” Williams says of the congregation, which draws about 35 people for Sunday worship. “We regularly celebrate 90th birthdays.”

Shortly after beginning her new job, Williams realized that the files contained no current funeral plans. She began inviting people to come and talk with her but, “Although it was a wonderful way to develop pastoral relationships, it was super slow.”

She held an initial funeral-planning workshop that included readings, hymns, and a discussion of options. “It was good and well-attended, and we handed out forms so that people could fill them out, but they needed lots of information that they didn’t have with them, like funeral home instructions,” said Williams. “People came to a screeching halt and said, ‘I need to think about this and talk to my kids.’” She didn’t get forms back that day or in the weeks following.

Last summer, Williams took a different approach. She and the Rev. Christina Berry, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sterling, planned a series of three evening workshops. A chaplain from the local hospital discussed health care directives and health care decisions one week, and hospice workers visited to explain hospice and palliative care options the next. At the third meeting, a local funeral director spoke, then, each pastor held a session with her own congregants.

The series, said Williams, “got people thinking. It’s been really helpful because this is really difficult to talk about and bring up with children.” She sees evidence that the sustained effort is helping people make positive decisions.

“I do think that there is more of an understanding that death is a natural event that everybody is going to go through at some time or another. They relax about it a little. There’s less resistance to acknowledging the subject.”

“Getting people to think more realistically about their own mortality is good,” she says. “There are so many ways that people’s lives end. I don’t think anyone is ever completely prepared for their own personal experience, but there are people who are comfortable with the idea that they are mortal, and they can look at what they’re doing now as living out their lives with grace and humor, caring for others, and preparing their children.

“You can model for other people a way through, show them the path.”

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