Death and the burden of funerals on the Church of Scotland

(Photo: Miguel Saavedra)

Death may be a topic most people want to avoid, but around 80 people came together at Edinburgh University's School of Divinity over the weekend to explore the place of death in life and society.

Far from morbid, the conference explored death from a broad range of angles, with everything from attitudes to death in the Middle Ages, death in art and literature, and modern funeral care.

The conference looked at death primarily from a Scottish perspective and was opened on Friday with a paper presented by Professor Jane Dawson on death as a part of life during the Reformation period.

She used the great reformer John Knox as the main subject of her talk to explain how death in some instances could dramatically shape outcomes in a person's life, and at other times deal terrible blows of pain and grief.

In addition to experiencing "intense grief" over the death of his first wife, Knox over the course of his life would see the death of many close friends through martyrdom, including his mentor George Wishart.

Contrary to the notion that the prevalence of death made people in the Middle Ages more immune to the pain of it, Prof Dawson argued that grief was as real and as difficult for people living in this period as it is for people today.

She told of a pastoral letter sent to Knox by Calvin in order to comfort him in his grief, and another letter sent by Calvin to a close friend of Knox urging him to stay close to him in his time of difficulty.

"We can think that because [death] is so common, people didn't feel it," she said.

"Death is a fact of life, it is around you everywhere. Because of this, people look to the church to provide an explanation of how to deal with death, and rituals to get you through it."

It was the martyrdom of close friends that also spurred Knox on in his own work, being "driven by watching on the sidelines to seize the opportunity they might have died for", Prof Dawson explained.

And while the Church was in a position of authority in society, the rites associated with death often had to be "negotiated" with people according to what they felt they needed.

"No matter how much the Church wanted to control, it was not always a success," she said.

Dr Lakhbir K Jassal, a necrogeographer, has been researching funeral care and provision in Edinburgh. In her talk, she said many funeral directors had a Christian faith that helped them in providing funerary services.

In addition giving funeral directors emotional sustenance, she said faith was one way in which they were able to convey a "shared sense of place and care with those who inhabit the city".

"Faith keeps them going on a daily basis," she said.

"They openly announce that they have strong family and Christian values."

She went on to share how the industry, in Edinburgh at least, is permeated by "random acts of kindness that often go unnoticed", and a sense among the funeral providers that what they do is less of a business and more about taking on the role of "guide" for people at times of death.

Edward Small, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, spoke about the huge challenges facing the Church of Scotland under the "burden" of providing more funerals at a time when its financial resources and the number of ministers are decreasing.

While in 2010, the Church of Scotland conducted only 5,000 weddings – 18% of the total number - and just under 6,000 baptisms, it was responsible for over 28,000 funerals, or 52.1% of the total number of funerals in Scotland in that year.

"That's a huge commitment [when the Church is] struggling for attendance, struggling for membership, struggling to survive in places," said Small.

"It's committing so many resources that it's become a problem."

He explained that only 35% of congregations are meeting their own ministry costs and ministers are being stretched over several parishes.

One minister near Inverness he spoke to had conducted 212 funerals last year – equivalent to around four a week.

"That's a huge time commitment," said Small.

He posed the question of whether the Church of Scotland should consider raising a fee for conducting funerals, although he acknowledged this was contentious because of the expectation that the Church should provide this funeral for free.

"It's not for me to decide that but it's got to the situation where something's got to give," he said.

The idea had some sympathy among conference delegates. Ron Dunn, of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium, Management who was chairing the session, said there should be "some kind of standardised fee in place", or else the Church will find itself unable to continue providing funerary services at the rate it currently does.

A member of the audience who said she worked for a local funeral provider noted that while the Church of Scotland receives little more than a donation, the vast majority of profit from a funeral goes to the funeral providers.

Dunn added: "The money that the Church of Scotland receives for a funeral is invested back into the community. The funeral directors are not giving it back into the community."

In addition to the burden of conducting so many funerals, Small said he was concerned about the decline of the Church of Scotland because people "no longer have the support networks" to deal with bereavement.

"It does worry me even though I'm not in the Church of Scotland," said Small.

It would also have an effect on the Church's desire to witness effectively across Scotland, he said, with funerals being in some places the only form of Church presence.

He warned that the civil service and humanists would eventually take over the Church of Scotland in provision of funerals if it continues on its current path of decline.

"If the Church of Scotland can't do it, people are going to look elsewhere," he said.