Christian Mythbusters

Christian Mythbusters


Pomp & Circumstance, or, Chuck & the Queen

September 27, 2022

This is Father Jared Cramer from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, here with today’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, a regular segment I offer to counter some common misconceptions about the Christian faith. 


The mourning and funeral for Queen Elizabeth II last month was watched around the globe. The longest-serving monarch that England has ever known, the preparations for marking her death and committing her to God were carefully done  far in advance and likely touched even those more skeptical about the essentiality of the monarch to twenty-first century England. 


Of the many roles the Queen had, one of them is actually connected to my own denomination, The Episcopal Church. For the past five hundred years or so, the monarch has been known as Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That means that Elizabeth II was also the highest-ranking lay person in the Anglican Communion, choosing the Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, who serves as the spiritual leader of our Communion. 


As I watched the carefully orchestrated funeral last Monday morning, I was reminded of something my friend Chuck Wibert used to say when it came to funerals. Chuck was what is known as a verger in our congregation, basically a Master of Ceremonies. And Chuck would tell everyone before a funeral that the approach we take—one with careful liturgy and music, and with a pall covering the casket so you cannot see the wealth or importance of the person being buried—we do all of this to make it clear that at death we are honored for what is truly most important: that we are a beloved baptized child of God. 


“When the Queen of England dies,” Chuck used to say, “She’ll get the same treatment you do as a Christian because we are all equal before God.”


Now, of course, the queen clearly did not get exactly same treatment as your average Episcopalian funeral, but the underlying principle and point Chuck was trying to make holds. And so, this week I’d like to break the myth that pomp and circumstance is just for the death of a queen. It is available for you as well, because you matter that much.


Part of the difficulty with funerals is that our culture—and our various religious traditions—have jumbled together all sorts of customs and services done when somebody dies. Traditionally, there would be a time for preparation of the body and visitation with the family. Then, at the funeral liturgy, the deceased would be commended to God. Finally, at a wake, memories would be shared and the person’s life toasted.


These days, however, the ubiquitous “Celebration of Life” tries to accomplish all three at the same time—time with the family, prayers and religious customs, and remembering the person who died. And, by trying to cram so much into one service, none of it can be done terribly well.


But if we tease the central part out of that gordian knot of customs and look only at the heart of what the funeral liturgy is meant to do, we will discover that holding that piece well can be profoundly more meaningful than a smushed-together cultural cluster.

At its heart, the funeral is the gathering of the faith community to commend someone to God. What matters, at the end, is not how successful they were, whether they were a saint or a scoundrel. In the end, what matters is that God’s love, through baptism, has claimed you. 


And so, as I said, the casket or urn is covered with pall, a piece of heavy and embroidered fabric that is a symbol of baptism. And everyone, no matter how loved or how hated, how rich or how poor, gets that same baptismal pall. For God loves and embraces us all equally out of God’s mercy.


In our tradition, we also don’t have numerous arrangements of flowers, photos, or other memorabilia. Those can be comforting to the family before at a visitation or afterwards at a wake or reception, but the funeral isn’t about a multiplicity of flower arrangements. Instead, for every funeral, there are two arrangements of flowers near the altar, a gift marking that holy space in honor of the one who has died.


In fact, our liturgy doesn’t even have a place for a eulogy. Once again, remembering is something best done as a community, when we can talk to each other and share multiple stories. Instead, a sermon seeks to blend together the life of the person who died with the Gospel of God’s love and forgiveness which holds us all, in life and in death. 


Of course, there are parts that are different with each funeral. The choices of hymns and music, whether or not the service is chanted, if there is incense… but truth be told, with so much of it done so carefully, with pomp and circumstance for every person who died, you get a sense of the importance with which our faith community holds each and every person… a manifestation of our belief that God’s love also holds each and every person.


My friend Chuck actually died not that long ago and we’re getting ready for his funeral in a couple weeks. It won’t be what we saw on TV for the queen… but it also won’t be that far off, when it comes to the service itself. Because what Chuck would tell you is that what matters most is that God loves him, God saved him, and it is God who will welcome him home—imperfections and all. 


Thanks for being with me. To find out more about my parish, you can go to sjegh.com. Until next time, remember, protest like Jesus, love recklessly, and live your faith out in a community that accepts you but also challenges you to be better tomorrow than you are today. 


loaded