by Heidi Haverkamp
Recently, I presided at a tiny home funeral. Twenty people gathered in the living room of a mother and son, approximately aged 90 and 60, who had died on the same day. I’ll call them Leona and Joe. They had lived together for many years, and Joe had become his mother’s caretaker as she slipped into dementia. After a series of medical emergencies, they died on the same day. A small group of family members had gathered from all over North America and we had a funeral in their living room with a small group of neighbors and friends. It was more intimate and powerful than any funeral I have been part of – in churches or funeral homes or even at graveside.
This particular home funeral happened by accident. A parishioner of mine, who I’ll call Mary, had been one of Joe and Leona’s neighbors. She loved them dearly. It seems they had no regular church home and so Mary asked if I would come visit with their grieving family. A week later, the family called me and told me they were having a sort of “memorial party” the next day and asked if I could come and offer a simple service. With so little time we couldn’t plan a traditional Episcopal funeral, with full sermon and Eucharist, but I said I would come and offer something.
The next afternoon, I went to Joe and Leona’s home and joined their friends and family. We sat around their living room, on their couches, chairs, bar stools, and even the stairwell. Their music was playing on their stereo system. There was a laptop on a side table, with a slideshow of photos of Leona, Joe, and their family over the years. Two little wood boxes with their ashes had been set in handmade wreaths of silk flowers (made by a neighbor) on the dining room table, with framed photographs assembled around.
I invited each person to share their name and how they knew Joe and Leona. I offered three burial collects from The Book of Common Prayer, then we read two psalms from Leona’s family Bible, said the Lord’s Prayer, and finally, closed with words from the Committal service. We sat close together, crammed in a room designed for half as many people, facing one another in what had been Joe and Leona’s home. As the service came to a close, meaty smells from the grill wafted in.
I’ve done many funerals, and there have been things dear to me about each one. But there was something about this funeral that I can’t get out of my mind. Perhaps it was the novelty of it, but I think it was the intimacy, familiarity, and sense of community we shared in that living room: hearing each person speak, seeing each other’s faces, sitting on the very furniture that had belonged to these two people who were now gone to be with God.
On the other hand, this small funeral, which as far as I can tell wasn’t advertised in a public obituary, likely deprived some friends and acquaintances the opportunity to grieve Leona and Joe. This is a loss, certainly. (When my step grandmother died, her children decided not to have a public funeral, a decision I respect, but it was painful for some of my cousins and me to lose the chance to grieve her publicly.) There are some funerals where capacity for large numbers of people is necessary: for large families, to be hospitable to all those who may have known and loved someone, to make room for the shock of a community at a particularly tragic death. Large funerals can be powerful, moving, and healing.
But some families in my parish have struggled with making funeral or burial plans for loved ones, or have interred ashes without a service of any kind. A small, home funeral can offer closure, hope, and celebration without the large-scale planning required for a formal, public funeral and burial. Admittedly, it’s easier to do a home funeral if the deceased has been cremated, since transporting a coffin is difficult and costly. (Although, as my Filipino parishioners have pointed out to me, hosting a wake with an embalmed body in the home is common in the Philippines, for as much as a week!) There are many reasons why a home funeral might not be feasible for some families; but on the other hand, I wonder if this sort of intimate, simple funeral would be a spiritual relief and an emotional comfort to many others.
In a society where it seems every day less and less of our lives are private, and large gatherings of people are as ordinary as the nearest mall or megachurch, smaller, pastoral liturgies that emphasize relationships and intimacy may offer a deeper experience of God’s love and promise of resurrection than funeral home services or large church funerals. Where each person can introduce themselves, where a sense of spiritual communion, even without Eucharist, can be shared, where people are rubbing elbows and hearing each other breathe, witnessing to the reality of the communion of saints and powerfully recalling the Resurrection appearance of Jesus among his grieving friends, cowering in a locked, upper room. Home funerals will not replace church funerals or funeral home services, but a small, home funeral liturgy can witness to the Resurrection in a powerful, theologically vibrant way.
The Book of Common Prayer states, “Baptized Christians are properly buried from the church. The service should be held at a time when the congregation has opportunity to be present.” As an Episcopal priest, I pay attention to the Prayer Book’s rubrics and theology of liturgy. But as weddings are held more and more often outside of churches –in homes, backyards, and other places meaningful to the bride and groom – and as churches seek to take liturgy out of the four walls of their buildings and into public spaces, funerals held in homes or other special places strike me as liturgically appropriate and powerful. In Judaism, families “sit shiva” in the person’s home, in the South, funeral receptions are often held at home, and in many cultures and in our own country’s past, the visitation of a person’s body and family has been in the home.
I invite clergy, Christians, and families everywhere to consider the small, home funeral liturgy as a theological and powerful way to remember the dead, and Christ’s promise of Resurrection.
The Rev. Heidi Haverkamp is priest and the vicar of The Episcopal Church of St. Benedict, a congregation with a diverse and Spirit-filled average Sunday attendance of about 75 in Bolingbrook, Illinois. She blogs at Vicar of BolingBrook about home, church, suburbia, and spirituality.