A Funeral Mass marks the departure from this life to eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s the least we can do for a loved one. CNS photo/Woody Huband

We owe a loved one the dignity of a proper funeral

By  Michael McGourty, Catholic Register Special
  • November 5, 2016

When the Christian community gathers to celebrate a Funeral Mass, it gathers as members of the Church on Earth to say farewell to a loved one and entrust their soul, through the mercy of God, to Heaven.

The Church hopes the deceased person’s body will be brought to the Church for this final farewell. The Funeral Mass is a reminder of the baptismal promises made to the individual on the day of their baptism.

The body is greeted at the doors of the church with holy water, to remind us of the promises made by Christ at baptism. A white pall is placed on the casket to symbolize the baptismal gown and the paschal candle is lit to remember the baptismal candle. As the pall reminds us of the dignity we share as God’s children through baptism, it is never substituted by a flag or other banner.

The Funeral Mass is the most important of three stops or places of gathering in the Funeral Rites. In the past, the family often gathered in the home of the deceased. Here, family and friends would remember their loved one and exchange stories of good times they had shared. Today, that first gathering place is more typically a funeral home.

The second stop is the celebration of the Funeral Mass. The purpose of the Funeral Mass has always been to proclaim Christ’s victory over death through His resurrection and the reality that, through baptism and the mercy of God, the deceased is not dead but has an eternal soul awaiting the Lord’s merciful judgment.

The third stop in the traditional Funeral Liturgy is at the graveside, where the body is placed in the earth to await resurrection and final judgment.

After the community has said farewell, the body can be taken for cremation if this is the family’s desire. There was a time when some people chose cremation in order to deny their belief in the resurrection of the body. Catholics are now free to choose cremation provided it is not done as a denial of the resurrection of the body.

In cases where a family opts for an immediate cremation, the Church still desires to celebrate a Funeral Mass with the ashes of the deceased present. The ashes are to be treated with the same love and respect accorded a human body. This love and respect is beautifully demonstrated when the body is incensed and recognized as having been a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Because the Funeral Mass is for the Christian community to proclaim and celebrate Christ’s victory over death, eulogies for the deceased are encouraged to be delivered before or after the Funeral Mass. As the funeral home is now where we come together to celebrate the life of a loved one, it is the recommended place for the eulogy and conversations about the deceased.

The sadness of death is to be set aside at the Funeral Mass as we celebrate that, through Christ’s resurrection, our loved one will live forever. The importance of this Good News is lost if the celebration is overwhelmed by sadness. It is for this reason that eulogies should occur at the funeral home or graveside, not during the Mass.

Recognizing that many people who attend the Funeral Mass will not have visited the funeral home, a pastoral concession can be granted (at the discretion of the parish priest) to allow a eulogy in church prior to the Funeral Mass. While not ideal, having a eulogy prior to the Mass allows the liturgy to become the final word of the celebration. It is important that such eulogies be well prepared, written out, short and appropriate for a community of the faithful. They should be given by only one person and not leave the community without the hope and consolation of the resurrection. The purpose of the homily is to speak about and proclaim Christ’s victory over death.

The final stop in most funeral liturgies has always been the cemetery, where the body is placed to await the resurrection of the dead. In the past, burial often occurred in the parish cemetery, where the deceased could be remembered in prayer by the living members of the community. Today, parish churches seldom have their own cemetery. Instead, Catholic cemeteries are provided where the bodies of the deceased can await the day of the resurrection. Priests will, however, also go to a secular cemetery for the burial of a Catholic and bless the deceased’s burial ground.

As cremation becomes more popular, priests will participate in a prayerful internment of ashes at a cemetery or properly designated resting place. Out of respect for the dead, the Church asks that the ashes be buried or interred properly. The ashes should not be kept in the family home for fear they could become lost or forgotten after the death of the immediate family. Because ashes are to be buried awaiting the day of the resurrection, Church tradition objects to sprinkling the ashes across a lake or field. A priest is not allowed to accompany a family for such a spreading.

One question that often arises is where the Funeral Mass should take place. The normal answer is in the church where the individual practised their faith, usually the parish where they were attending Mass. When a person has not been practising their faith, this means the geographical parish in which they resided. Many elderly people have moved away from the parish where they practised the faith for years. In such cases, the Funeral Mass can be held at either the parish the individual formerly lived or where they resided at death.

A Funeral Mass cannot be celebrated in a funeral home, unless it is a Catholic funeral home with a chapel that has been blessed by the bishop for such purposes. Some families do not understand the significance of the celebration of the Funeral Mass and its importance in the Catholic faith. A memorial celebration in a funeral home, without the Mass, never has the same value as the celebration of the Eucharist for the repose of the soul. It can be sad to see families deny a Funeral Mass to a deceased family member who had attended Mass regularly and was a beloved member of their parish community.

As individuals prepare their Wills, they should make very clear their wish to have a Funeral Mass celebrated at their parish church.

The death of a loved one is among the most difficult experiences we face in life. Nothing marks more beautifully the departure from this life to eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven than a Funeral Mass that is well celebrated in the parish church where the deceased celebrated their faith.

The Funeral Mass proclaims this reality in a beautiful prayer: “May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem.”

(Fr. McGourty, SLD, is pastor at St. Peter’s parish in Toronto and teaches part-time at St. Augustine’s Seminary. He holds a doctorate in liturgy from the Pontifical Institute for Liturgy in Rome.)

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