Funeral Planning

The pastoral problems that can arise with funeral planning all too often result from current Church practice having not been explained to people as well or as often as it should have been despite the fact that (at the time of writing) it is thirty years since the “new” rite was introduced.  There is then a risk of ill-feeling being created and even greater upset caused when, upon being called following a death or meeting with the family later to plan the funeral, the priest is faced with having to explain why things are done the way they are, or why the Church doesn’t do what the family may be asking.  In the case of families who regularly practise their faith, there is always the hope that they are aware of these things and therefore the priest won’t be put on the spot in that way.  However it can be extremely difficult if family members (especially those who are not church-going) are unfamiliar with what the Catholic Church does, and make requests influenced by what they want or what they may have seen done elsewhere, rather than accepting the guidance of the priest on what can and can’t be done according to the funeral rites of the Catholic Church if a Catholic funeral is what they want.  

Something else that hasn’t always been explained very well, and therefore people often struggle with, is the fact that, while the prayers offered during the funeral are for the person who has died, the funeral itself is for the support and comfort of the mourners.  A funeral serves a basic social purpose: to express our farewells to the deceased and to reverently dispose of their body.  What I think it helps to bear in mind, in light of our faith and our hope for the person who has died, is that they are already with God.  In case they may still need our prayer support and help, we are encouraged to pray for them – initially through the spiritual rites accompanying the funeral, but also through our on-going prayers and in Masses offered for their intentions.  But the funeral itself, and the choice of rites (whether a funeral service or Requiem Mass) is, as the rite specifically states, for the needs of the mourners.

This is why I keep offering the pastoral advice that people shouldn’t make specific requests in their Wills for what type of funeral it should be and what they want at their funeral (at least not without discussing things with family members first), because the reality is that it won’t matter to them – they will, we hope, be with God.  For the same reason it isn’t always helpful for the family to request a Requiem Mass simply because they think the deceased would have wanted it.  If they were a practising Catholic, and also the immediate family, then the celebration of a Requiem Mass should be the obvious choice, but what matters is how well that choice assists the needs of the mourners in terms of supporting and consoling them in their grief and helping the process of healing. 

And so, if the immediate family is not Catholic or, for whatever reason, have fallen away from the practice of their faith, then it makes no sense at all for them (or, for that matter, all the non-Catholics attending the funeral) to sit through a Mass, a rite they are not familiar with or that hasn’t been a part of their everyday lives.  It would be far more appropriate to celebrate a service that contains exactly the same components in terms of prayers, readings and hymns, but without the eucharist which they wouldn’t be receiving anyway.  They should feel a part of the service, not excluded from a central part of it as they would be if a Requiem Mass were celebrated and they are not receiving communion.  Mass for the deceased can be offered anytime, but meanwhile a simple funeral service may be much more consoling and personal to the family (and a more honest choice) than a more involved rite that is not part of their faith practice.  As the rite recommends, this decision should be made in consultation with the priest rather than the priest having to try to persuade the family to change the choice they have already made and which may not be the most appropriate from a pastoral point of view.

If the family’s choice is for a Requiem Mass, it may be parish policy that, wherever possible, it should be at the normal parish Mass time.  This is because the times of weekday Masses are already in the public domain and the people who attend them on a regular basis may have planned accordingly.  The only exception would be if family members have to travel from a considerable distance and wouldn’t be able to get there in time.  On the other hand the time of a funeral service (as opposed to Requiem Mass) can be much more flexible. 

One of the most problematic elements of the funeral concerns the choice of hymns or, rather, not choosing hymns.  The rite is very clear that the texts of the songs chosen should express the paschal mystery of the Lord’s suffering, death, and triumph over death and should be related to the readings from Scripture.  Subsequent guidelines from our Bishops’ Conference make it equally clear that, because most secular music doesn’t do that and therefore it is not to be used.  The parish hymn book provides a more than adequate choice of appropriate hymns.  A time of bereavement isn’t the occasion to get into a discussion on this issue and it would be far better if people would simply respect and accept the Church’s teaching and practice.  And, really, that’s the bottom line: what we are doing is of the Church, and what we do in church should be appropriate to church.  If people can’t accept this and insist on things that are not of the Church, then perhaps they need to celebrate their funeral elsewhere.  It’s a sad thing to have to say, but it may be the only option if the family creates an impasse like that. 

The practice has grown up over time of inviting a family member or a friend to do the selected scripture reading because it seems a nice thing to do.  The problem is that not everyone is used to public speaking in the way that is required not just in reading, but in proclaiming, the word of God clearly and audibly.  And this is important because of the specific message of the reading and the homily that will follow.  In recent years the Church has begun to train and commission people to be Ministers of the Word in order to better ensure that the word of God is proclaimed properly and well, and it now says, therefore, that only commissioned ministers should read – that is their ministry.  If a member of the family, or a friend, is a commissioned reader then they may be asked, but they should study and prepare the reading ahead of time and not read “sight unseen”.    

The instruction in the rite on the subject of what is often called the eulogy (or panegyric) is a little confusing.  On the one hand it says there is never to be a eulogy, but goes on to say that a family member or friend may speak in remembrance of the deceased – which is what a eulogy is.  In practice the recommendation is that, if it is done at all, it would be better done at the end of the final commendation when the Mass or service is ended (or possibly read at the social gathering later if there is going to be one).  What is also recommended is that it should be brief (and it should be appropriate to being in church).  There is no point in someone offering to speak, or, for example, to read a poem in tribute to the deceased, if no one can hear them properly or if they are so upset and everything dissolves into sobbing and tears.  

Traditionally Catholics were always buried, indeed cremation was actually forbidden.  Whilst for some years now cremation has been allowed, the Church still expresses a preference for burial.  If still a family’s choice is for cremation, the ashes may not be kept in a person’s house, nor is it permitted to scatter them whether in the air, on land or in water, but they should be interred in a cemetery or stored in a place that has been specifically dedicated for that purpose.  Just as a burial plot provides a permanent physical connection with the deceased and encourages us to remember and pray for them, ashes should be interred for the same reason.

Certain aspects of the funeral are the domain of the funeral director, but they are carried out within the context of a funeral celebrated according to the rites of the Church.  Please, therefore, don’t discuss with the funeral director details of the funeral that should be decided only in discussion with the priest.  This helps to avoid confusion and the possibility of having to change things that the funeral director may have agreed to but that can’t be done.  Similarly, in light of what we said earlier about music in church, you should discuss with the priest any choice you may have for music to be played at a crematorium before such arrangements are made with the funeral director.   

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