Image: Catholic funeral service at St Mary Immaculate Church, Charing Cross c. 1930
[Public Domain, photo by Sam Hood, from the collections of the State Library of New South Wales, Australia]
I was honored to be at the bedside of a parishioner in his final moments of earthly life. His wife and adult children were gathered around him as we heard the words of Scripture: “I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21: 1-2). And then the family gasped, for the man smiled and quietly drew his last breath. With this shared experience of death, it was a delight and honor to help the family prepare the funeral rites for the man they loved.
The Scriptures figure prominently in the Order of Christian Funerals, reminding the listeners that they are part of the history of salvation, and that their lives and the life of the one who died, share in the saving action of God through the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. Conforming our lives to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, especially in the sacraments, gives each of us the promise of the heavenly banquet to come.
Planning a funeral should be simple, because the rites are there, ready for use. Sadly, the beauty and integrity of those rites are often clouded by social customs that have their basis in human desires rather than the truth that comes only from God. We mean well but are often misguided. Here are the Church’s responses to common questions about funerals.
The Church allows cremation unless it is obvious that it was chosen for non-Christian purposes. The Church prefers that cremation take place after the Funeral Mass, but does provide for the option of having cremains present at the Funeral Mass. Cremains, because they are the body of the deceased, must be treated with the dignity and reverence due a body. They were once a temple of the Holy Spirit and they will be called to the resurrection of the body at the end of time. For these reasons they should be properly interred and never be scattered, separated into vials or jewelry, or left on the mantle or bedside table.
Gathering in the presence of the body
Called a wake or a viewing, mourners often gather to see the deceased for a last time, paying their respects to the family as they say their goodbyes. This optional practice should be accompanied with prayer that includes the Sign of the Cross, Scripture, sprinkling with holy water, a psalm, the Lord’s Prayer and a concluding rite. At all times the body, a temple of the Holy Spirit while alive, should be treated with dignity.
Praying the Rosary
For many, praying the rosary in the presence of the deceased is an important devotion. Often this happens at the end of a viewing, as part of a Vigil service, or immediately preceding the Funeral Mass.
The word eulogy comes from the Greek eu (good) and logos (word or speech). A typical eulogy in today’s culture centers solely on “high praise” for the deceased; this supplants the Church’s mission to “offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has been returned to God, the author of life and the hope of the just” (Order of Christian Funerals, 5). While a eulogy is never to be given, the bishop may give all the parishes in his diocese guidelines for remembrances. He may allow each pastor to determine if, when, and how such remembrances can be offered. Encouraging mourners to write down memories and collect them in a book for the family is a beautiful and lasting tribute.
Sacred music is meant to enhance the liturgical action and to proclaim the mysteries of our faith and our gratitude to the God who has given us life. While Frank Sinatra may have done it “My Way,” the deceased was called through baptism to do it “Christ’s Way.” Favorite songs are best played at a reception, helping mourners to recall happy memories to share with one another.
Pictures and slide shows
A wonderful way to encourage family to participate in the funeral is to have them gather and prepare pictures of the deceased. These can be displayed outside the church (nave) or at a reception, again helping all to recall the goodness of the one they mourn. These should never be in the church (sanctuary) during the funeral rites.
For the men and women who have served our country, draping the coffin with the flag is an important honor. At the funeral Mass, the flag is removed and the white pall, symbol of baptism, drapes the coffin. Military honors are welcomed after the funeral Mass.
Knowing that a funeral brings non-Catholics to the church, many parishes and funeral homes offer worship aids, which are a wonderful way to help explain the funeral rites. They should always be prepared or reviewed by someone with the proper expertise in Catholic funerals.
It can be extremely difficult to tell a grieving family “No” when they ask for special considerations. The minister working with the family must be sensitive to the needs of the family while preserving the integrity of the rites. When celebrated well, the Funeral Rites, “Bring hope and consolation to the living. While proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and witnessing to Christian hope in the resurrection, the funeral rites also recall to all who take part in them God’s mercy and judgment and meet the human need to turn always to God in times of crisis” (OCF, 7).