In our Catholic tradition we observe the month of November as a special time of remembrance and prayer for the dead. The month begins with the Solemnity of All Saints on November 1, followed by a Feast of All Souls on November 2. This month I would like to reflect a bit on our Catholic rituals associated with the event of death, our prayer for the deceased and our comfort to those mourn.
The Church calls the community to age-old rituals upon the death of a faithful one. While there may be many components and variations, the Church affords three profound “moments” of prayer and comfort. Typically sometime between the death and the actual funeral the family and community gather for a Vigil for the Deceased, then there is the Funeral Liturgy, and finally the Rite of Committal.
Before these ritually prescribed moments, there is the less predictable time and place of death. This may come after hours and perhaps days of the loving waiting of a family for one grown weak by advanced years or long illness. It might also come suddenly and tragically. This may happen in a hospital or an emergency room. So often friends who gather in this latter situation struggle to find words and we might often find ourselves striving to fill the silence or break the grieving. A well-meaning person often offers a cliché, “He (she) is in a better place.” Well, while theologically that is true, those are not comforting words to parents whose teenage child has just died in an accident, or one whose spouse has died suddenly and unexpectedly.
Often we speak because we are uncomfortable in the presence of such strong emotion. But perhaps the proper response to another’s uncontrollable grief is to simply be silent. If they are crying, a simple touch or perhaps just quiet presence is the very best we can offer. When Jesus came to Martha and Mary at the death of their brother Lazarus, Jesus initially just wept with them. (John 11: 17-27)
The Vigil for the Deceased is most commonly observed in U.S. culture in the funeral home. If for some reason there is not going to be funeral home visitation, this can happen in the home, particularly if the funeral will be delayed or perhaps is to be observed in a different locale. At the vigil, the Christian community keeps watch (thus the word, “wake”) with the family in prayer to the God of mercy and finds strength in Christ’s presence. It likely will be the first occasion for the solemn reading of the word of God. In this time of loss the family and community turn to God’s word as the source of faith and hope. The assembly in this moment calls upon the Father of mercy to receive the deceased into the kingdom of light and peace.
The Funeral Liturgy is the central liturgical celebration of the Christian community for the deceased. In this liturgy, the community gathers with the family and friends to give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to commend the one who passed to God’s tender mercy and compassion, and to offer strength and comfort to those who mourn.
The funeral Mass or a liturgy outside of Mass may include the reception of the body or the cremated remains, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the final commendation and farewell. Naturally this celebration is both somber and joyful and should include proper religious hymns in which the whole congregation can participate.
Some will ask, “When is the eulogy, the sharing of memories of the life of the deceased?” While any part of the Church’s rites can include personalized anecdotes or warm stories about the deceased, it bears emphasizing that a Christian funeral is focused on the benevolent action of God in Jesus Christ. There is certainly a proper time and place to note funny stories or to list accomplishments. Unfortunately, too often the aspect of faith, salvation and mystery can take second place to these.
Celebrating the Eucharist and affording mourners the chance to receive Holy Communion can emphasize the everlasting nature of the Lord’s Supper, our Mass. Often a favorite remembrance might be Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want … he spreads before me a banquet …” We are reminded that heaven and earth are joined at the Lord’s table, the altar.
The funeral Mass concludes with a commendation, referenced as the “last farewell.” In song we call upon the saints of God to come to meet them, for angels to hasten to meet them.
The Church celebrates the Rite of Committal, prayers at the burial place. In our prayers we recall that Jesus, by his own three days in the tomb, made holy the graves of all who believe in him. A common tradition is that the crucifix that may have been displayed in the casket is blessed and given to a family member as a reminder of Jesus’ own suffering and the promise that death and suffering are not the final word for Christians.
The movement of the body and the movement of the mourners are important acts in our ritual. Such movement may rightly be called processions. We might take funeral processions for granted, just a pragmatic matter of moving from one place to another. But the reverent movement speaks of the dignity of life. I recall vividly the funeral cortege (procession) taking President John F. Kennedy’s body from the White House to the Capitol on a horse drawn catafalque as his widow and children walked behind. When Bishop John McRaith died in 2017 his body was brought to St. Stephen Cathedral through the streets of Owensboro on a hay wagon drawn by a John Deere tractor, reminiscent of his great love for creation and the land.
In critical life moments, like birth, marriage, sickness and death, we reveal our faith in the most ordinary of actions.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
Most Reverend William F. Medley
Diocese of Owensboro
Originally printed in the November 2019 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2019 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic