A friend who will be presiding over her first graveside ceremony asked me for a copy of my commital service. I was happy to share a couple of versions of what I typically say at the graveside, but after I attached the files and sent them to her, the Worship and Liturgy professor in me felt compelled to pass along a few tips. I told my friend that she could smack me around if she knew all that already — but in my experience, seminaries do NOT teach these things and ministers are left all alone in the world to figure them out themselves — usually after the fact and when they are reviewing a job poorly done, through no fault of their own. And so, for those who might benefit from my mistakes and my subsequent positive experiences presiding over commitals…
The Rev. Professor PeaceBang’s Guidance on Graveside Ceremonies
1. Drive to the cemetery with the undertaker in the hearse. It’s respectful, no one else will want to, and I think it shows great pastoral commitment. You can relax and look at your words and prepare. Often the undertaker will have great community tidbits to regale you along the way.
2. When you arrive at the site, stand back for a moment and then discreetly ask the undertaker which direction the head of the casket is. Stand there, as close to the casket as you can get. Wait a few moments for everyone to gather around. I guarantee you that everyone will stand a mile away because no one likes to be that close to death. Do your silent, smiling pastoral presence thing until they get nearby, then say, “Please come in closer. Let’s get nice and close to each other.”
3. Say your words, and take your time with them. Take a good, long moment of silence after your prayer, or wherever it feels appropriate.
4. When you are done, close your book, then if your physical position allows it and you feel moved to do so, place your hand for a brief moment of silent blessing on the casket. Close your eyes and pray silently. This gives people a moment to transition. When you are done, step back from the grave. The undertaker will step forward and say “This concludes our services, bla bla bla.” This is a nice time to go to the widow/widower/next of kin and put a hand on their shoulder. After you have done that, step discreetly away and let people mill around as they need to. They will need to. Obviously, if someone’s gripping your paw, you’ll stay with them. If I feel like I can’t hold back tears at this point, I will get out my hankie and let them flow. However, under no circumstances do I allow myself to cry openly during the service. If I get choked up (and I often do), I stop until I regain control of my voice. If a few tears leak out, I ignore them.
5. It is perfectly acceptable for you to bid your farewells to people who are still there and get back in the hearse for the ride back to church, or to get a ride from someone else. It is up to you whether or not to go back to the house. If there is a collation at church, you should make an appearance.
This is a ceremony for which I think we have to have absolutely every move and every moment under total control, or at least look like we do! I always say to my students, “No cute muff-ups allowed at the graveside. Anywhere else, okay. Not there. Presiding over the graveside ceremony is the most priestly of functions and we must be impeccable.”
P.S. Shine your shoes!!