Dear Friends in Christ, November 16, 2014
A couple of weeks ago I attended my first cemetery meeting in Rockford. Seeing that I am now an administrator of a parish cemetery, I thought it necessary to get myself into this game, so to speak. While I won’t bore you with the gory details of that lively meeting, though for me it was interesting and helpful, I would like to share with you a few thoughts regarding a related topic. Namely, funerals. Now I know this may not be such an uplifting topic to discuss, but let’s face it folks, we will ALL face that reality someday. So, how do you want your funeral to go? Have you made arrangements yet? Consider…
Q. What is the proper form of a Catholic funeral?
A. The Catholic Church has always considered a full Catholic funeral to include three integral events – 1) the visitation or wake, including a wake service, 2) the Funeral Mass, and 3) the committal at the graveside. Each one plays an important part, and to leave one or more of them out is to not experience the full grace the Church has to offer at such a critical time of need for the family. Furthermore, a faithfully departed Catholic deserves all the suffrage we can offer on his or her behalf, and these prayers, most significantly the Mass, are the greatest act of mercy we can offer the dead.
Regarding the wake, before the advent of funeral homes wakes were traditionally held in the parish church or in the home of the deceased. Either of these can still be done, but nowadays it is most common, and usually most convenient, to hold a visitation at a funeral home. Funeral homes typically do a very nice job with these. In any case, gathering in the presence of our beloved’s body is a very holy thing. Sometimes circumstances don’t merit a viewing, i.e. accident, disfigurement, etc., but whenever possible it is highly recommended to allow family and friends to view the deceased one last time. Though naturally painful, these moments can be healing and can bring closure. Incidentally, having the cremated remains (NOT “cremains,” please!) of the deceased does not allow for this whole process of finding closure to unfold as it otherwise might with a body viewing. Back to the visitation - It is also an excellent opportunity for family and friends to share stories and reflections about the deceased. The Church actually encourages this process, though admittedly we do like to avoid the so-called “on-and-on” syndrome, the impractical and sometimes annoying situation in which no one wants to quit speaking! (Where’s the buzzer? The hook? The gong?) But in all seriousness, this intimate gathering and sharing can be comforting for all present. Add to this a short vigil service according to the rite of the Church, perhaps even a rosary, and the evening can be a holy, beautiful, and memorable event.
Now, part two – the Mass. It is crucial for all, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to understand that the Mass is offered for the sake of the deceased. It is the prayer of suffrage par-excellance for the soul of our loved one. The Mass is not simply a gathering and celebration for the living. If this were the case, why then do we put the body (or urn) front and center at the foot of the sanctuary during a funeral Mass? We are praying for that soul, even as we remember and celebrate. This is the time for prayer and reflection on the Paschal Mystery of Christ – his passion, death, resurrection, and glorification – which is the central mystery of the Christian faith. Thus, Christ becomes the main focal point of the funeral. Incidentally, the Church discourages extensive storytelling about the deceased during the funeral Mass. As already mentioned, these stories are more appropriate for the wake. If a reflection, sometimes called a eulogy, is offered at the Mass, it should really focus on the faith of the person. Such a reflection would be cohesive with the whole purpose of the Mass. I can’t emphasize it enough that the Mass is a solemn right of our faithfully departed brethren in Christ! Even if a family is not comfortable for some reason having a Mass, it would be unconscionable to deny a faithful Catholic this greatest act of mercy. If anyone of you is concerned that you may not have a funeral Mass offered for you when you pass, then by all means talk to a funeral home and get it arranged NOW!! Funeral homes are more than happy to oblige such a request. Just don’t put it off until it’s too late to get your requests solemnized in writing.
The third part of the Catholic funeral rite is the graveside committal service. This is fairly straightforward, but nevertheless it must not be overlooked. The central part of the committal is the blessing of the grave. Though all Catholic cemeteries are already consecrated, and all cemeteries are hallowed ground by virtue of the presence of the deceased, we still do a blessing of an individual grave. The final prayers of commendations help to bring closure, and afford an enduring sense of hope in the Resurrection of Christ. These prayers are important for family and friends to participate in and hear. If military honors are to be given, the time following the short committal service is the most appropriate. Finally, some families will choose to remain until the casket has been lowered and the grave has been closed. I’ve never understood why most families don’t do this. If it were me, I would want to see my loved one fully “laid to rest.” But some rituals I guess are just too painful to endure. In any case, the graveside committal does bring closure, and it concludes the sacred funeral ritual of the Church.
Holy Mother Church gives great dignity and respect to the dead. That is why we must take extraordinary care in laying them to rest. There is much more that could be said here, and many questions that may remain unanswered, but hopefully this brief discussion is helpful for you in arranging your own funeral plans, even though we hope those plans won’t need to be consulted soon!
Lest I forget, having a grand luncheon after all funeral rites are over is another great ritual!
Blessings in Christ,