Why a Catholic funeral? There is a reason why I ask this question. The life of a parish priest affords a unique vantage point not just on developments within the Church but also on movements in society as well. It is quite amazing what you can pick up on as a priest as you make your rounds of home visits, pastoral calls, work with the poor and being present in moments of grief. If you learn to listen you can discern quite a bit about the state of our world and society. Some of these movements you can notice are hope-filled while others, sadly, are troubling. A trend that I have been noticing that I do find troubling is a cheapening (for lack of a better word) of the funeral experience and ritual. I believe this cheapening testifies to a growing impoverishment of the human spirit.
I do believe that there are some honest factors regarding this trend – i.e. the cost of funerals as well as the business of the funeral industry, our society’s unease with death, the reality of families being spread out and no longer living in close proximity to one another and therefore not in as much contact and conversation, effects of the increasing use of cremation as well as non-Catholic spouses or other family members who are not familiar with Catholic rituals and customs having to make choices in a very stress and pain filled time. These are honest realities and they need to be acknowledged. But there are other choices made around funerals that I do believe are unnecessary and, in fact, cheapen the celebration of a funeral and the prayers for a loved one. The choice of a family to forego all things “Catholic” for a funeral because they themselves are not or no longer Catholic even though the deceased was Catholic and was sincere in practicing his or her faith. In a similar vein, the choice to not have a funeral Mass or do anything at the parish church but rather have a service just at the funeral home or graveside in order to simplify things for everyone and sometimes even skirt around the possibility of offending someone who may be out of sorts with the Church. The choice to forego the rituals associated with a Catholic funeral in favor of more contemporary approaches often offered through the funeral business. In our consumer mentality we sometimes only attach value to something if we have to spend money on it and if it seems flashy.
As a priest I must admit that I am saddened when it is apparent that the deceased loved ones and family did not choose the Catholic funeral simply because they are not Catholic themselves or they just want to make things easy for themselves. This does happen and more and more so. I am saddened both for the departed who, in life, found great comfort in his or her Catholic faith and I am saddened for those left in loss because they are making the choice to miss an important moment to be nourished by the beauty and hope found in the Catholic funeral celebration. The Catholic funeral Mass and ritual is one of the most beautiful rituals of the Church and it speaks on a whole host of levels and it is meant for the deceased as well as the loved ones who are left in sorrow.
If there is a word that I think of in relation to the Catholic funeral it is “commend”. In the Catholic funeral (from wake to funeral Mass to graveside committal) we commend our loved one into the mercy of God and we also commend ourselves, praying for God’s comfort and peace in a time of loss. The options of readings, music choices (i.e. church hymns) and what it is appropriate to do within the ritual are there precisely in order to perform this ritual of commending the loved one into God’s mercy and eternity. This structure of the ritual is not meant to deny or diminish the loved one or her or his life in any way. A “celebration of life” (a current expression used in the funeral business) is all well and good but such a celebration ends at the grave and can go no further. The Catholic funeral, in its depth of ritual and meaning, reminds us that the grave has been overcome not by our wishing it so but by the death and resurrection of Christ our Lord! The Catholic funeral reminds us and brings us into this greater context and this is extremely important because only the resurrection of Christ conquers the tomb, only the resurrection of Christ says death is not the final word, only the resurrection of Christ gives the true hope that comforts and heals us in our sorrows.
No person likes to think of his or her death. We just don’t want to go there but I encourage people to at least reflect on the beauty and meaning of the Catholic funeral and let your loved ones know your desires and wishes. Many parish offices can even help people plan out how they wish their funeral to be celebrated and this information can be kept on file. In the end, the church has no legal way to require persons to celebrate a loved ones’ funeral in a particular way, even if information is on file, but making one’s desires known and even keeping it on file at the church can be of assistance in a very difficult time. And it is important. A funeral should respect who a person is and a person’s faith tradition is an essential component of who one is and the hope we have as Christians.
Please know that many parishes have the space and ability to host the wake/visitation of friends and family. This can often occur just as easily in a parish as it can a funeral home. In fact, it is wonderful statement of faith as well as a moment for the larger parish community to show support for a family in a time of loss.
Also, in relation to this topic, our Catholic faith has a wonderful tradition of having Masses offered for our dearly departed. This tradition is rooted in our firm belief in the resurrection. In the resurrection of Christ, death has been overcome and just as we pray for one another while here on earth so we can assist our loved ones who have died with our prayers just as they can pray for us. The Mass said for a deceased loved one is a way that the Church gathered offers prayers for a loved one as he or she is brought into the beatific vision – full life with God. Yes, we can pray for our deceased loved ones and it is important to do so. Scripture often testifies to the power of the prayers of the gathered community. If you wish to have a Mass offered for a loved one contact your parish office. It is a holy thing to do and an act of mercy.
So, “Why a Catholic funeral?” is a valid and important question. The Catholic funeral is at the heart of who we are as Church – a people gathered, saved and redeemed by Christ our risen Lord! The Catholic funeral is a witness to a secular world that there is a greater context to both life and death. A Catholic funeral speaks to the hearts of the people gathered and even converts hearts that might be hurting and searching.
In the resurrection of Christ the tomb has been conquered. The Church has much to say and has been uniquely given the authority to speak about death and the hope of eternity.