From the earliest days of Quakerism, Quakers have been wary of speculating about issues such as whether there is life after death. In 1692, William Penn (1644-1718) suggested that Quakers were consciously cautious “in expressing the manner of the resurrection because it is left secret by the Holy Spirit”.
Amongst modern Quakers there is no clearly formulated doctrine of what it means to have a soul, or of when a person becomes a person. Perhaps there is no clear Quaker view of life after death because we tend to concentrate on living in the present. Some Quakers believe in a traditional Christian view of the after life; others would simply say that in some way life continues after death; others would say that we cannot describe what we have not experienced.
We are encouraged to be very practical if we know that death is approaching. In fact, we are encouraged to make wills while we are still fit and healthy, so that we do not create a burden for others by dying ‘intestate’. Some Quakers make ‘living wills’, requesting that if they become ill to the point of being incapable of living without artificial life support systems or inappropriate medical intervention, they be allowed to die naturally and with dignity.
A Quaker funeral is based on the same model as the usual Meeting for Worship – but this is a “Meeting for Worship in Thanksgiving for the Grace of God, as shown in the life of (e.g.) Jane Smith”. Since it is likely that several of the mourners will not be Quakers, someone will start by explaining what will happen during the Meeting. Then everyone settles into the silence and just as in an ordinary Meeting for Worship, anyone who feels moved by the Spirit may speak – perhaps to offer a memory or to share a prayer or reading. The emphasis is on the grace of God shown in the life of the deceased. Because they are thankful for having known this person, Quaker mourners tend not to wear black. Cremation is becoming more common today than burial and the Meeting for Worship may take place at the crematorium. A memorial Meeting to give thanks for the life of the one who has died may be held at the Meeting House weeks or even months later. In the case of a Quaker whose life is thought to be a good example of faith and action, a testimony to the grace of God in her or his life is written.
The following extract, written in 1693 by William Penn, © Quaker Life, is a favourite reading at Quaker funerals:
And this is the Comfort of the Good,
that the grave cannot hold them,
and that they live as soon as they die.
For Death is no more
than a turning of us over from time to eternity.
Death, then, being the way and condition of Life,
we cannot love to live,
if we cannot bear to die.
They that love beyond the World, cannot be separated by it.
Death cannot kill what never dies.
Nor can Spirits ever be divided
that love and live in the same Divine Principle,
the Root and Record of their Friendship.
If Absence be not death, neither is theirs.
Death is but Crossing the World, as Friends do the Seas …
Those wishing to arrange a Quaker funeral should first contact the Warden (01865 557373). He holds a list of the current Funeral Arrangements Team available, and they will promptly and sympathetically deal with your request. Some information is also available in Quaker Faith and Practice. Oxford Meeting has some space in Wolvercote cemetery.