Practices and Prayers of Catholic Bereavement

Authored by Fr. Tyron Tomson in Issue #7.4 of The Catechetical Review

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Public domain image from Pixabay.comIt’s strange to say it, but I love how we Catholics celebrate funerals. Even atheists walk away from our Masses of Christian Burial in awe. If only they (and likewise our own faithful people) could appreciate with greater fullness the rich spiritual heritage that surrounds Christian death! More often than not, the emotionally charged time of final decline, passing, and grieving does not lend itself to a close attentiveness to these prayers and rituals, which are some of our most primordial yet most exquisite. There is great benefit in meditating with their aid in advance of the inevitable. After all, in this life, no one gets out alive.

Death always brings out the inherent Catholic tension of truths, always proven true in experience. We feel human sadness at loss (often with a natural sense of relief for the suffering having ended) and a supernatural joy for the gain of a step toward the ultimate goal of heaven (with accompanying spiritual solicitude for the role of Purgatory). Memories are recalled and the deceased is commended to the Lord for particular judgement. Our funeral rituals balance these realities mindfully. The Catholic Church knows how to mourn well, and her traditions should be vigorously studied, practiced, safeguarded, and rediscovered if needed. Ideally, we will have prepared for our last moments by a long and devout life, fortified by the sacraments along the way and particularly at the end by the Last Rites, and pass peacefully in the state of sanctifying grace. Whatever the circumstances this fallen world brings us, the Church stands wise and ready to help bring us to the next world.

The Planning Process

Except in the rare but happy case of one who has planned their own funeral ahead in detail, family members are left this task in conjunction with professional and ecclesiastical help.[1] Many find it cathartic. On rare occasions, it is downright burdensome and can be left largely to the experts. Even in ordinary situations, however, choosing a casket, obituary, gravesite, headstone, readings, music, participants, flowers, etc. proves an overwhelming task that in fact might distract from the sensitive but unique time for grieving rightly. Except in the case of children, there is no reason not to have advance legal, financial, and medical arrangements kept up to date. Tragedies aren’t on the schedule, but they happen.

Fallen-away or non-religious family shy away more and more from traditional funerals, even for their pious loved ones. One major consideration is the option of cremation, which, while allowed by the Church, is not historically preferred. Along with abbreviating the liturgical expression of mourning, it generally deprives those who grieve of important steps of healthy psychological closure. Planning these decisions ahead explicitly with a funeral home in collaboration with parish staff better ensures that our intentions are followed and our faith’s traditions are honored.

The Vigil for the Deceased

Naturally, a time of gathering together first in the family home and then at the funeral parlor gives a suitable period to suspend our daily responsibilities and focus on the gravity of marking the end of a human life. While nowadays the modern embalming process generally allows a greater flexibility in the timing of funeral celebrations, it remains expedient not to delay unnecessarily. Moving funerals for the conveniences of work, vacation, sports, secular observances, etc. betrays a repugnant distortion of the primacy of our duty to the dead. Death, by definition, is not convenient. This time has been considered sacred throughout all cultures and ages; our modern era should not be the sad exception in devaluing a life by disrespecting a death for our own selfish ease.

The young must be gently instructed how to conduct themselves in these settings. The growing trend to distance them from all obsequial experiences in the name of preserving them from trauma serves mostly to preserve parents from difficult parts of their primary duty of getting their children to heaven. Children should be introduced to the reality of death at the right times in the positive context of the universal call to holiness, the witness of the saints, and the promise of the resurrection of the body.[2]

While many funeral directors do not favor the time of visitation to be held in the church building, the liturgical books provide for it and this custom creates a fitting continuous connection of the rites, as well as being especially pragmatic if larger crowds are expected. Keeping appropriate decorum during the wake can sometimes be a challenge. Pictures, videos, and mementos should be displayed with sensitivity to all levels of grief and the somber character of what is being commemorated. Those who call should keep their time with the bereaved brief but meaningful, and above all prayerful. A kneeler is placed before the casket (or urn). Holy cards are offered with an image and prayer or quote drawn from Sacred Tradition, not of secular or self-aggrandizing or even flippant character. Intention cards can also be available for Masses to be scheduled through the parish office, particularly on the anniversary of death.

Concluding the public visitation with a time of prayer, whether from the prescribed rite, by praying the Holy Rosary, or both, properly settles the mood into a spiritual timbre to prepare for the funeral itself. The family and closest friends should be invited to a private time of final farewells with the body before the casket is closed to move to the parish church for the Mass. There are even simple prayers provided in the ritual books for this occasion, which must be approached with utmost sensitivity in all circumstances, but especially in tragic ones.

The Mass of Christian Burial

Our funeral Mass represents the transition from our Sacramental life that began in Baptism to our afterlife in eternity.[3] Analogously, we are again surrounded by family and friends, brought into the church, covered over with a garment, soaked in Holy Water, illuminated by a burning flame, and given official passage from one state of life to another. Several other sacramental connections present themselves: Holy Matrimony signals a kind of death of the individual identity and entails preparation for the hereafter, “until death do us part.” Ordination, with its hallmark prostration (also present in religious profession), calls upon the saints as models in laying down one’s life in service of the Lord. Confirmation sends Christian soldiers forth into a dangerous battle of spiritual life-or-death proportions in which all die but none need perish. Confession marks the death of the old sinful self to avoid that eternal death. In the Eucharist, we receive the resurrected flesh of Christ as the substantial promise of the glorification of our own earthly bodies. All collectively prepare us for our natural end, in a repeated back-and-forth route from the world to our beloved parish church, where we come one last time only to leave one last time.

The body is greeted at the door, draped in the pall, sprinkled with Holy Water, and brought before the Paschal Candle. Appropriately, we celebrate with the highest act of worship we have: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the sacramental commemoration of the Christ’s Paschal Mystery.[4]

Traditionally, the vestment color has been black for mourning; white is most often used currently and even purple is permitted. In pastoral practice there exists a tension in funeral liturgies: on the one hand, we mourn the dead with prayer for the soul’s repose through purification from past sins; on the other, we comfort the grieving by the promise of resurrection while recalling the blessings of life. In striking this balance, there need be no conflict for any person of faith. Christ willingly died with the plan to rise, and could rise only because He first died. It is normal to be sad, as death was not God’s original plan for us. The virtue of hope calls us to be confidently serene even in the midst of our very real sorrow.

The ancient music of a Requiem Mass offers comforting text and melodies (“Eternal Rest” as the Introit antiphon, “Eternal Light” at Communion, and “Into Paradise” for the conclusion).[5] Selections should mirror this sensibility, and avoid arbitrary favorite hymns and choices unsuitable for a funeral. A wide variety of proposed readings ensures that fruitful possibilities can be found for every situation. Several of the Mass texts, especially the Prefaces, poetically convey forgotten basic truths of the immortality of the soul and its heavenly destiny.

The homily should refer to the deceased chiefly by emphatically encouraging prayer for the departed soul’s final purifying journey, but should focus mainly on the Lord’s Resurrection and our promised share in it as a challenge for the living.[6] Eulogies, while permitted in many places, invariably distract from the prayerful atmosphere and are better suited for the funeral home or luncheon for an abundance of practical and pastoral reasons. The voice of the Church should resound throughout the Mass to emphasize its primary character as an act of worship of Almighty God.

The conclusion of the liturgy is always filled with poignant emotion. Incense lifts our spiritual attention heavenward while the final commendation prayers turn toward the theme of departure, moving the mourners to the procession to the cemetery.[7]

We should be sensitive to the presence of non-Catholics, particularly by providing practical liturgical directives and clear instructions for the reception of Holy Communion according to the guidelines of the national Bishops’ Conference. The tone of these clarifications must always remain welcoming while still inviting all to embrace the Lord’s demanding invitation to ongoing growth in holiness.

The Rite of Committal

Our cemeteries are hallowed places because of our sacramentalized view of the body and our theologically detailed spirituality of prayer for the souls of the departed. The grave is “a sign of hope that promises resurrection even as it claims our mortal bodies,”[8] and itself is first blessed if the cemetery is not Catholic and has not been previously blessed. Pallbearers are generally ceremonial, replaced by unceremonious utilitarian funeral trolleys, but here they cannot escape the practicality of transporting the body to the grave. The burial prayers themselves are short; the stark silence of the headstones can preach far more loudly about what is happening. Once more, a highly sanitized experience usually brings phenomena like fake green carpeting over the grave so no one sees any dirt, and then comes a dismissal with the promise of careful burial by staff once everyone leaves. Such measures merit revisiting and revising in light of our modern cultural struggle in dealing with loss. They have gradually contributed to it in these delicate but meaningful formative moments, resulting in a communal need to survive the experience of death better both in the psychological and supernatural senses.

The Bereavement

A meal customarily follows, which always serves as a welcome respite from the heaviness of active grieving and a time to visit casually and receive the hospitality of the parish family. This practice, as well as bringing food to the home during the time of sickness and mourning, strongly prefigures the heavenly banquet.[9] Care must be taken to follow up with the bereaved, as the people who support them closely must usually move back to their everyday routines. A new wave of sorrow generally comes in the days after the commotion of the funeral calms down, and the community has a solemn duty from the Lord to comfort those who grieve as a spiritual work of mercy. Masses can be offered on the third, seventh, and thirtieth days of mourning and the yearly anniversary. Many parishes rightly use All Souls’ Day as a time to assemble the recently bereaved and the month of November to gather at the cemetery for devotions in honor of the Holy Souls in Purgatory.

Conclusion

The prayers and practices that surround Catholic death deserve more catechetical attention in our parochial, educational, and familial settings. While their primary goal is of course commending a soul to its Creator with every grace possible, part of that entails the consolation of the bereaved and their spiritual care as well. Both of these objectives can be accomplished by fruitful consideration of and personal preparation for these sacred rites. The Catholic Church gives us a model of suffering loss because she is closely attuned to the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Savior who lives forever in heaven, and offers us all no less.

Father Tyron Tomson is a priest of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He was ordained in 2011, and serves as pastor of St. Bernadette in Lancaster and St. Mary in Bremen, as well as chaplain and teacher at Fisher Catholic High School.

Notes


[1] Immediately in a new pastoral assignment, a priest should contact local funeral homes with his personal direct contact information and set up a meeting to review his expectations and foster a good working relationship from the very start.

[2] This phenomenon partly explains our culture’s worsening corporate inability to engage with suffering and death well.

[3] “We . . . were baptized into his death” (Rom 6:3).

[4] Although provided in the ritual books, alternative options to the proper funeral Mass pale in comparison both in beauty and efficacy. Even families who do not practice the faith can be encouraged to have a simple, quiet Mass in which they participate according to their level of comfort.

[5] The traditional famous proper sequence, Dies Irae, is the only piece that conveys a severe sentiment; even it resolves gently both in text and tone.

[6] The trite abuse of basically canonizing the deceased during funeral sermons is spiritually deleterious to the mourners and offensive to pious Catholics.

[7] Again, sometimes this is delayed, but preserving the liturgical continuity is far preferable unless an interruption is absolutely unavoidable.

[8] Rite of Committal.

[9] See Is 25:6, Mt 8:11ff, etc.

This article originally appeared on pages 26-28 in the print edition.

Art Credit: Public domain image from Pixabay.com.


This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting editor@catechetics.com

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