Death brings grief and sadness, but the Church has spiritual practices to help the faithful in their time of need. OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

The time of death promises eternal life

By  Fr. Yaw Acheampong
  • October 20, 2023

“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

(Romans 14:7-9).

When we hear of death, there is sadness and there is grief. We are often confused when we see death. We really don’t understand death. However, when death occurs, the Church has spiritual practices in place that may help the faithful to reflect on their understanding of death and to help offer a dignified farewell to the deceased. The words of St. Paul  give us an insight: the Church’s teachings of death and the funeral practices are based on one of the tenets of our faith — the Death and the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

On Nov. 2, the Church celebrates All Souls Day when we remember our deceased brothers and sisters. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions, there was confusion surrounding the diocesan norms for funeral practices because we were limited to the practices that were allowed at that time. Now that things are returning to normal, perhaps we can use this year’s All Souls Day celebration to re-examine and to reflect on the diocesan norms for funeral practices. 

According to Church tradition, the funeral Mass “holds first place” among the three main funeral rites. In Walking on the Journey of Faith, I reflected on the importance of the celebration of the funeral Mass. Before the funeral Mass, there is a vigil service that usually takes place in the funeral home. As the faithful come to pay their respects to the deceased, the celebration of the vigil service prepares us for the funeral Mass when members of the community celebrate the faith — faith in Jesus — they shared with the deceased. I have learned that bereaved families can find comfort and consolation in a homily that mentions any faithful service rendered by the deceased to the parish community.

After the funeral Mass, the third funeral rite — the Rite of Committal — usually takes place at the cemetery before the burial. One frequent question at the time of death is about the burial practices of cremated remains. The Church’s teaching about burial practices  emphasizes the sacredness and the dignity of the deceased. The Church expects the cremated remains to be buried or kept in approved consecrated grounds and not scattered around several places or kept in another place.

The Church’s funeral practices “express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death.” A Christian shares in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The death of a member of a community affects the life of the whole community. The Church’s funeral rites bring members of the community of faith together to comfort each other. In the rites, we commend the deceased to God’s mercy and goodness. We also pray that the grieving family feels the consolation of God. As priests we may encounter people whose demands are different from the diocesan norms of practices. It is our responsibility to approach such a situation with sensitivity and understanding.

In hospital ministry, there is a rite — Prayers for the Dead — described in the book Pastoral Care of the Sick. The celebration of this rite is an extension of the ministry to the sick. It is not part of the funeral rites of the Church.  Visiting a grieving family, when death has occurred, is a significant part of hospital ministry. As soon as death occurs, arrangements may be made for the priest-chaplain to visit the bereaved. Usually in the room where the person has died, the priest-chaplain leads the grieving family in the prayers.

In my ministry as a hospital priest-chaplain, I remember a dying grandfather wished to witness the baptism of his grandson. Sadly, he died at the hospital on the morning of the baptism, which took place in the hospital chapel. With sadness, the family requested  I baptize the grandchild first. After the baptism, we went to the room of the deceased to celebrate Prayers for the Dead. It was a difficult time for everyone. However, the actions of the family members reflected their faith and their hope in God.

Our faith teaches us that in funeral celebrations we experience God’s presence, comfort, compassion and His love in our midst.  It is in the celebration of the funeral rites that we hear the promise of eternal life.

(Fr. Yaw Acheampong is a priest in the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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