Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

Evolution for the Catholic Student

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Monday, November 18, 2013

The Challenge of Funerals

The Challenge of Funerals

Catholic pastors face many difficult challenges.  I suspect that often, weddings and funerals are two of the big ones.  I wrote on the importance of good marriage preparation recently.  Like weddings, funerals are important Catholic services, with very specific religious purposes.  And like weddings, our culture has totally secularized them.  Unlike weddings, which are usually planned over a period of months when people are in happy, excited moods, funerals are often planned in only a couple of days by people suffering through emotional turbulence.  I imagine that presents a very unique pastoral challenge.

I have been to numerous beautiful, spiritual Catholic funerals.  But we all know that our culture sees funerals as very different events than the Church does.  What happens when a non-practicing child, for example, has to plan a funeral for a deeply religious parent?  The parent deserves a proper Catholic funeral, but the child is not as interested.  And because of the deep pain the child is suffering through, it is not the most opportune time for catechesis.

So what is a funeral?  We often hear funerals described as, “A celebration of the life of…”  It is certainly important and praiseworthy to celebrate the lives of our deceased loved ones, but that is not what a funeral is for.  Neither is it primarily a tool to help grieving family and friends cope, though that too is essential, and is certainly an important role of the Church.  A funeral is not a pseudo-canonization ceremony, dedicated to extolling the virtues of the departed and contemplating on the effect he is now having on Heaven.

A funeral is a commending of a soul to God.  The focus is the deceased, and the focus should be on prayer for the deceased.  It usually takes place in the context of a Mass, so worship of God is central.  And it is an opportunity for the Church, the family of God, to commend a brother or sister into the Hands of the Lord with prayer, and if that person be in Purgatory, to offer sacrifice for the sake of his or her purification.

It is a very beautiful thing.  And for those who understand it, it provides deep spiritual healing for grieving family and friends, not to mention spiritual benefits to the deceased.  It can even be considered, in some ways, “a celebration of the life of,” since there is no better celebration than the perfect worship of God, offered for the soul of our beloved.

The Church sees funerals so differently than our culture does because the Church sees death so differently than our culture does.  “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones” (Psalm 116:15).  It is a sign of beauty, love, and eternal hope.  We have so much more to offer than does our culture, but when someone who does not understand is planning a funeral, it can pose a difficult pastoral challenge.

Understandably, the community wants to be sensitive and supportive, but also to give the deceased the dignified, prayerful, proper funeral that he deserves.

The time to start teaching people these things is not the three emotional days during which a funeral is being planned.  It is now.  It is always.  We must be sure that people understand the beautiful spiritual treasures the Church wishes to dispense, so that when the time comes, they are received with joy.  It also may lead to the essential practice of continued Masses being offered for our beloved dead.  They should not be forgotten at the altar when the funeral Mass is over.

Another difficult issue is the proper burial of one’s earthly remains.  It is critical that we make known our belief in the resurrection of the body.  We say we believe in it during every Creed.  When we die, our soul goes to God for particular judgment.  A soul, being purely spiritual, can not be killed.

Our bodies, of course, are buried.  But, at the end of time, when Christ returns, our bodies will rise, and our soul and body will be reunited for all eternity.  The saved will receive glorified bodies, but they will be their bodies.  As such, the treatment of earthly remains is very important.  It has been throughout all of Christian and Jewish history.

Generally a body is to be buried on sacred ground.  A body can be cremated, provided it is not meant to display a lack of faith in the resurrection of the body (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2301).  But the ashes should be buried or placed in a mausoleum.  Again, our bodies should await their resurrection with a dignified burial on sacred ground, whenever possible.

This, too, provides a difficult pastoral challenge.  Many people want the ashes of their loved ones kept in their homes or scattered at some place they found special during life.  Again, this is such an emotional issue and such an emotional time, pastorally, priests want to be sensitive and supportive.  But the fact is, the deceased (and God) deserve to have the remains properly buried.

I remember the struggle a friend of mine had at the death of her brother.  His wife wanted his ashes dumped into the ocean because he enjoyed being out there on his boat.  My friend gently requested a proper Christian burial and even offered to pay for it.

Not only was this offer rejected, my friend suffered great scorn from her sister-in-law and even her family, who found the request to be selfish.  But there was nothing selfish about it.  She did not wish it for her own sake, but for her brother.  She felt, out of love for him, that he at least deserved that she make the offer, even though she found it very uncomfortable.  It was profoundly unselfish.  Many of us have found ourselves in similar situations.  It is at these times we need to pray for both courage and prudence.

But we also need to pray for greater catechesis on these issues all the time.  May the beauty of the Church’s teachings, received from God Himself, be known and celebrated.  During this time at the end of the year, when our readings focus on the end times, it should remind us that even those not alive to see those days, will face their own end at some point.  Perhaps it is a good time for us as individuals, and as a Church, to prepare.