From the beginning, Friends have emphasized the equality of marriage partners. George Fox admonished that Friends should be married “as though they were not, both husband and wife free to do God’s work and not possessive of one another.” Later, Lucretia Mott wrote that “in the marriage union, the independence of the husband and wife will be equal, their dependence mutual, and their obligations reciprocal.” Friends today continue to share these commitments to marriage equality, but extend this to include marriage partners without delineating the individuals by gender.
Formal declaration of commitment in the presence of God and Friends under the care of the meeting establishes a foundation for a shared life of spiritual wholeness. Such a religious commitment liberates rather than constricts the couple’s natural impulses toward passion and spontaneity and becomes a source of joy, not only for the couple but also for the meeting and all others in the couple’s life. A meeting has a responsibility to nurture a marriage of members whether or not that marriage began under its care. (See Section VII. Quaker Marriage Procedure.)
Relationships which were formally entered into under the covering of the Spirit may nevertheless experience severe challenges. The meeting needs to recognize such situations early and be prepared to help with tender understanding and sensitivity. Offering the support of a clearness committee may be helpful. The meeting may also help the couple secure professional counseling, such as that provided by the Friends Counseling Service, which is associated with the yearly meeting. The couple and those counseling with them may wish to consider together such questions as:
- Have you sought divine guidance for the situation in which you now find yourselves?
- Have you been able to acknowledge that of God in each other as you work through this difficulty?
- Do commitments to such testimonies as equality, peace and integrity consistently guide your relationship?
However, the meeting community may not be able to help a couple deal with their situation. The relationship may have deteriorated beyond the point of reconciliation. Children may need substantial help to recognize that the separation of their parents will significantly change the family situation, but not the love and commitment that each parent has for them.
In the event of separation, the meeting could again offer a clearness committee to help the couple consider the questions just noted as well as the following:
Have you been able to make careful, loving, and appropriate efforts to help your children understand what brought about this situation?
- How will you continue to relate to your children to show them that you love them?
- Have you carefully considered equitable ways of handling property and financial matters?
Divorce or the dissolution of any committed relationship is an intimate matter accompanied by strong feelings. The meeting’s role is difficult. Without becoming intrusive, it seeks to be caring and even-handed, keeping in contact with family member and other parties. The meeting encourages all concerned to continue their lives as Friends even as the relationship dissolves. (See Section VII. Guidelines for Care Committees.)
The decision to create a family either by birth or adoption is momentous. As with a marriage commitment made in the presence of God, the families and the worshipping community, so it can be with the decision to have children. The meeting can support the couple or single parent by offering the services of a clearness committee. It can also provide support through pregnancy or adoption proceedings, and as the family adjusts to the demands and joys of caring for a child.
Some Friends meetings have embraced the practice of inviting new parents to introduce their children to the meeting to be formally welcomed into the community. In this way, parents are supported as they involve their children in the life of the meeting, and develop practices to support and nurture each child’s life of spiritual faithfulness, joy and service.
End of Life, Death and Bereavement
Friends are advised to prepare for death as well as for the possibility of incompetence in their last days. This simplifies the tasks others will need to undertake and spares others unnecessary pain and confusion.
Regardless of age, there are decisions for all Friends to consider in preparation for the end of life, including when:
Physical and mental capacities diminish but do not preclude active engagement in the community around them;
Activities and decisions become dependent to a significant degree on others;
Others must act responsibly to manage what Friends leave behind.
Friends are advised to consider their plans to:
- Provide care for dependents;
- Dispose of real property, financial assets, and personal and household goods;
- Prepare advance medical directives, or their equivalents, and durable powers of attorney;
- Record wishes relating to the body after death, whether for burial or cremation or donation for medical or scientific purposes; and
- Identify the locations of any pertinent documents for the benefit of those persons who will be expected to act on the information in those documents after the death (for instance, an attorney and children or other members of the family).
(See Section VII. Queries and Checklist on End-of-Life Matters.)
Responsibilities of the Meeting
The Friends meeting will regularly remind its members of their responsibilities to make suitable preparations for death and for the possibility of incompetence as noted above, and will provide members with helpful sources of information and assistance that can guide them in fulfilling their responsibilities. It will also ask members to share their wishes relating to the body after death, their instructions for a memorial meeting for worship, and anything else that could help the meeting fulfill these responsibilities when they die. Where possible, the meeting may help the person heal breaches with others, tend to unfinished business, and forgive oneself for failings during life.
Upon the death of a member, of a person in a member’s family, or of a person with close ties to the meeting, either the meeting’s pastoral care committee or another designated committee will arrange for someone to visit the family to extend the meeting’s sympathy, and gently to assist the family as it adjusts to its loss. The visitor may also discuss plans for a memorial meeting.
It is expected that the meeting will be especially attentive to the needs of family members during what may be an extended period of mourning. The death of a loved one may leave a survivor alone and unable to cope with unfamiliar financial obligations and difficult decisions about property and arrangements for the future. Emotions surrounding the loss are likely to run very deep for a long time, even when death has come as release from suffering. When sudden death by illness, accident or suicide strikes younger people, the emotional and financial strain upon the survivors can be very heavy. In all these cases, not only the pastoral care committee but all members of a meeting are expected to provide active, sensitive support that extends well beyond the memorial meeting.
The meeting may be able to help in many practical ways including hospitality for those family and friends who come from a distance to attend the memorial meeting, child care, meals and housework. The meeting will need to respond with sensitivity to the family’s wishes. If asked, it may assist in notifying relatives, friends and the public press of the death and of plans for a memorial meeting.
The meeting can help plan a memorial meeting under the care of the meeting so that it will be in accord with the simplicity appropriate to a meeting for worship, or assist the family in arranging for a private memorial gathering. Members of the meeting are encouraged to support the family by attending the memorial meeting. Even if the family’s plans do not include a memorial meeting, the meeting may decide, with the family’s concurrence, to hold one. In addition, the meeting may wish to prepare a memorial minute as an expression of its appreciation of the life and service of the deceased member.
Memorial Meetings for Worship
When Friends experience the death of a member, they gather for a memorial meeting for worship. As the meeting begins, a designated person may describe the nature of the occasion and invite those present to speak if led to do so. While the worshippers remember the life and service of the deceased and mourn the passing, they also celebrate God’s gift of life and the beauty of human character. Members of the family may request that passages of Scripture, poetry, prayer or music be shared during the meeting. Those present may be drawn to speak of their memories of the deceased, whether poignant, loving, grateful, instructive or even humorous. A memorial meeting is a time when the mystery of death is deeply felt, and when the presence of God and those gathered in worship can bring comfort, hope and consolation.
Meetings may find it helpful to the bereaved family to hold a simple reception following the memorial meeting. Such an occasion gives an opportunity for those present to express more personally their grief, love and thanksgiving. It can also serve as a helpful transition to everyday life.
If ashes are to be deposited or scattered in some cherished spot or if there is to be an interment, whether done privately or at the time of the memorial meeting, the family may ask that someone prepare a brief message of farewell. This can be a particularly poignant moment, and the meeting needs to be sensitive to these emotions.