Liturgical Catechesis:  Christian Funerals

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Death surrounds the liturgies of autumn.  Scripture and nature see to it.

Each Sunday this fall we hear from Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians -- an epistle written to help the early Christian community deal with its grief over family and friends who had died in persecution.

Near the end of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus summarizes his two great commandments and engages in one final confrontation with the Scribes and Pharisees.  Then, before the story of his inevitable passion begins, he tells three parables, which we hear on the last three Sundays of the church year: the talents, about the community's responsibilities when the master is gone; the foolish virgins, about the importance of being prepared for the master's sudden return; and the separation of sheep and goats, the final judgment the master gives his servants.

Week by week the readings inside the church building develop these gloomy themes, even as outside the church buildings autumn's luster yields to the impending death of winter.

It's no accident that we celebrate two great feasts of death at this time of year; All Saints and All Souls.  (Three great feasts if you roll in Halloween.)

Liturgical catechesis this season may naturally turn to our hopes for resurrection and the true mystery of Christian death.  During this season, many people will be reminded of loved ones who have died.  Many others may begin to reflect on their own mortality or that of those close to them.  This may be a good time to get eminently practical with people about an emotion-charged event: the funeral.

Christian funerals remarkably comfort the bereaved.  Bringing people through an experience of ritual grief helps them weep appropriately for the ones they've lost; even while they grasp for hope that the deceased will live on, the mourners will survive their grief.

However, the funeral liturgy can usually be improved in many ways; it will help if you prepare people before they come to you in sorrow and shock to plan the burial of the one they love.

The Funeral Mass

This time of year, prepare yourself spiritually to help those who grieve.  Get in touch with loss.  Remember what helps you when someone you love dies.

Make sure the ministries are well covered for the funeral Mass: Will musicians be there?  Communion ministers and readers from family and friends?  Greeters to help the mourners do those everyday things they just can't do in grief: find their pews, open the hymnals, and remember when to sit and stand?

Do you plan the scripture readings with the family?  Do you take time to hear their stories about the one they loved?

Vigil for the Deceased

The greatest possible freedom exists in structuring the liturgy for the vigil for the deceased.  But many Catholic parishes still substitute the rosary.  The rosary leads the faithful in a beautiful mediation upon the role of Mary in salvation history, and some of the events from the life of Christ.  A private prayer of devotion that may be recited publicly, any minister may lead the prayer.  But the vigil for the deceased has a completely different liturgical structure in mind.

The vigil is essentially a word service, a proclamation of Scripture passages that lead the mourners into a celebration of Christian death.  Again, any minister may lead the service, but it is a public liturgy, not a private devotion.  The assembly sings songs and joins in responses.  Many communities invite the mourners to share stories about the deceased.

If your community is unfamiliar with the vigil for the deceased in the order of Christian funerals, this season provides a marvelous opportunity for liturgical catechesis on this celebration.

Rite of Committal

In most instances the rite of committal takes place in a cemetery following the funeral Mass.  Yet many seem oblivious to the anomaly that the element missing from the rite of committal is the committal.

Normally the deceased will be buried in the ground, but other possibilities include cremation and burial at sea.  But a burial service should include a burial.  Too often our custom is to escort the body to the grave, say some prayers, and then leave before the body is committed to the earth.  Here's what the order of Christian funerals says:

"Through (the act of committal) the community of faith proclaims that the grave... once a sign of futility and despair, has been transformed by means of Christ's own death and resurrection into a sign of hope and promise...  The rite marks the separation in this life of the mourners from the deceased.... (It) is a stark and powerful expression of this separation.  When carried out in the midst of the community of faith, the committal can help the mourners to face the end of one relationship with the deceased and to begin a new one based on prayerful remembrance, gratitude, and the hope of resurrection and reunion.

Beautiful words.  But people are still uncomfortable about watching a burial.  The liturgy continues to meet resistance from family members, funeral directors, and pastors.  We prefer other rituals: we dress up the deceased; we put make-up on them; we line caskets with comfortable bedding, and we cover the mound of dirt at graveside with polyester grass.  When St. Paul asks, "Where, O death is your victory?  Where, O death is your sting?"  he could find out by attending almost any American funeral.  Our culture often concedes the victory to death.

We want to believe in the happiness of the next life, but our culture makes us possess and achieve the happiness of this life.  That makes us happy, but nervous.

The ritual invites us to include the committal of the body as part of our prayers for the deceased.  As if planting a seed, we stand about the grave strong in our faith that the power of Christ reaches beyond mortality.  If your community walks away from the unfilled grave, this may be the season to ask yourselves why and to catechize about the real power of resurrection.

This article first appeared in Modern Liturgy 20:6 (August 1993):20-21.

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