Thursday, August 2, 2012

What's a Catholic funeral like?

Dear Rev. Know it all,

I am a member the First Church of the Separated Brethren with Signs and Wonders Following. Recently I attended a Catholic funeral. It was a lot more fun than I thought it would be. The deceased had been dead for about three months and had been cremated. His ex-wife and his current girlfriend had a tough time agreeing on what to do for the funeral. Finally, it was agreed that his ashes would be scattered from the bridge where he had perished in a tragic bungee-jumping accident. The mourners assembled at the appointed time and the ceremonies opened with a bag piper playing “O Danny Boy”  There were then a few touching eulogies given by some of his friends from the bar. They reminisced much about the time they had all been on a pub crawl in Dublin and how there was nobody who hadn’t enjoyed time spent with the deceased. His ex-wife and current girl friend simply looked at their shoes. The ex-brother in law gave a kind of “celebrity roast” in which he laughingly shared all the times he’d had to bail “Bubba” out of jail both here and abroad. Apparently Bubba had been the life of every party. There were some people writhing about in diaphanous gowns and I was told these were something called liturgical dancers. Then a priest (at least I assume he was priest, he had a white robe and some sort of multi colored stole) read a few lines from the Bible and shared a brief homily in which he assured the mourners that Bubba was doubtless in heaven because he had been such a nice guy and everybody had really liked him and he regretted that he had never actually met Bubba in this world, but was sure that they would share a beer in heaven because Bubba had been unflinchingly devoted to his Irish heritage and his Catholic faith. He never missed the dyeing green of the Chicago river on St. Patrick day, nor failed  to eat the sacred meal of corned beef and cabbage, so great was his devotion to the faith of his great grandparents who had emigrated from Ireland. Finally, the bag piper droned “Amazing Grace” and the ashes were tipped over the railing of the bridge and, as if by divine intervention, an updraft scattered Bubba’s earthly remains over the mourners so that we all had a little bit of Bubba with us as we retired to Szatkowsiki’s Irish Pub for green beer and corned beef and many more humorous stories about Bubba’s rich life and humorous escapades. Is this a normal Catholic funeral?

Miss M. Balmers

Dear Miss Balmers,
Yours sincerely,
the Rev. Know-it-all.

PS. It wasn’t always this way. Catholic funerals were once noted for their dignity and solemnity. Now they are much more entertaining and usually canonize the deceased no matter what kind of reprobate he might have been. In the olden days of which I have some memory, they were about the brevity of life and the mercy of a just God. The old Requiem was the same for prince or pauper.

There are two ideas current in the funeral industry which have overpowered Catholic custom and teaching regarding funerals. The first is that the funeral is for the living. Catholics don’t believe this at all. The funeral is for the dead. The funeral Mass is said for the repose of the soul of the deceased. We used to believe that every soul stood before the judgment seat of God to receive the reward of their deeds, for good or for ill. Now we think that God is such a nice guy that he just says, “Well, let’s let bygones be bygones. The bar is over here and the Jacuzzi is over there. Dinner is at five. Enjoy!” There is no freedom. There is no justice.  We are all doomed to be eternally entertained.

Catholics believe, or at least used to believe, that when one stood before the throne of God, even if one had died in His grace, there was still the matter of judgment, which we call purgatory, and that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, which is what the Mass actually is, both saves and redeems us. The funeral Mass, like all Masses is that sacrifice which is of infinite value for our eternal happiness. It was celebrated at each requiem for the benefit of the person who now stood before God. In effect, at the funeral Mass we stood with the beloved as he faced his Judge.  The Mass was thus not for the mourners, but for the one who was mourned as he faced judgment. It was not about us. It was about God whose mercy and whose justice are all important to mortal man.

Now, of course, it is about the guests at the funeral. The Catholic Funeral has been thoroughly Protestantized and is in the process of being thoroughly secularized. Remember that Luther, the founder of Protestantism, said that the Mass was not a sacrifice. It exists for the consolation and instruction of the faithful. Mass is about ME and MY FEELINGS. Not about God or the deceased. Mass has no objective value, certainly a funeral Mass has no objective value to the poor departed, so if Mass doesn’t do anything for me, then let’s skip it and get straight to the funeral banquet and the humorous speeches. If the Catholic theory is right, then there are a lot of souls standing at the throne of God saying “What?!? They’re not having a funeral Mass? But I need a funeral Mass!! I don’t need dancing girls and bagpipes. I need the people who claim to have loved me to pray for the repose of my soul. You mean they’re just going to sing a few songs and then go get liquored up????” 

The Wake is for the living. Have the comic roasts, the bagpipes, the meal, the eulogies, the pictures and the speeches there. But at church have a Mass. Not a Mass/Celebration of Life. A Mass. A real Mass which is the un-bloody re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Calvary which is the only good reason for any of us to attain heaven anyway.

The second innovation which has made life much easier for all of us is the “Memorial Mass.”  I have no idea what a memorial Mass is. In the Catholic Church we have Masses in the book for the funeral, for the anniversary of death, for the remembrance of the dead and for something called the commemoration which is offered when news of a death has been received or when the final internment of the body takes place. I suppose this final category is partly what is meant by a “Memorial Mass,” but in my experience, a memorial Mass is a Mass celebrated when everybody can coordinate their calendars. It is the big funeral at a convenient time. I will never forget when I was asked to do a memorial Mass a few months after the death of someone I had never met. I assumed that a few friends would gather to pray for the deceased who had died quite a while before. No such luck. Up pulled a white hearse and a funeral procession and a crowd of mourners who were expecting the whole enchilada. I had no musicians and none of the other trimmings and had not been to the wake. I had no idea that there would even be a wake. Needless to say the customers, none of whom I had ever met, were not very happy with my service. Some friends of the beloved cremains who was not a Catholic actually wrote my bishop to say that my performance had not met expectations. My performance? 

It is a great sadness to me to see  un-churched un-catechized adolescents who need some quick religion to feel better about a death in the family. They know nothing about the Catholic faith, but there they are wearing uncomfortable  clothing, mystified by a “performance” that they don’t understand. I had a funeral a few weeks ago at which the children of the not-so-recently deceased had been invited by the undertaker each to choose a reading. There were two Psalms and two Gospels. I said nothing. It was just painful, for them and for me. I have no idea if it was painful for the deceased. It seemed that the participants needed some religion at the moment, but only for the moment not for life. They had no idea of the Catholic way of living and I gave them nothing better. I just tried to be “pastoral” and not to upset them in their time of delayed grief. 

We Catholics believe that we have been given the Secrets of the Kingdom, the Keys of Heaven, the Bread of Angels. The modern world wants a performance. The Catholic funeral has been hijacked by  some members of the funeral industry just as the Catholic Sacrament of Matrimony has been hijacked by wedding planners and Bridal Magazines. (by the way, I have met some funeral directors who are people of deep faith and great compassion. I have met some however, whose motto is: “Head ‘em up, move ‘em out”) When will we say “Time out! Let’s do this right?” The world doesn’t need the show no matter how much they want one. The world needs Christ.


  1. I thought this was very interesting. I haven't been to a Catholic funeral since my recent reversion. The purpose of it is much more significant than I realized!

  2. The current failure to be praying for the soul of the dead reminds me of a story i heard about St. Bernadette. Someone told her that the people in her hometown have said that upon her death she will be a Saint. And she supposedly retorted: I know those people in that town and they are just saying that so they won't have to get on their knees and pray for me at my funera? (something to that idea)... funny no???

  3. Unfortunately, very true Father.

    And I put a lot of it down to the post-Vat II introduction of the ‘Mass of the Resurrection’ with white vestments, instead of the Requiem Mass and black vestments for funerals. There’s nothing like the Dies Irae to put things in perspective!

    Funerals have become ‘celebrations of the life of…’ the deceased, instead of recognizing that the deceased most likely is in need of our prayers – regardless of all of his/her ‘achievements’ in this life.

    ”Nil de mortuis nisi bonum” has been taken to extremes. ‘Joe’ or ‘Mary’ probably did some good in life but they were not saints - but sinners like the rest of us. When I die – which could be anytime now, given my advancing years – I don’t want anyone extolling my virtues, such as they may appear to be to some people

    I am a sinner. I haven’t lived an exemplary life. I have sinned – grievously at times. Yes, I have confessed, and I believe God has forgiven me. But I don’t know that I have remitted all - or even a major part of - the temporal punishment due to my sins. I’m going to need help – the help of the prayers of people after I’m gone.

    I don’t expect to avoid Purgatory. I just hope and pray I avoid Hell.

    So, don’t cry for me or send flowers. Pray for me as I pray for the Holy Souls every day. That’s what we all should be doing.

    And to all priests: preach about Purgatory! Not just in November - but year round. The soul you help may one day be you…

  4. I loathe eulogies! I'd rather have anti-eulogies, which my relatives and friends, but especially close family members, recall all my diatribes and how hurtful I was to them. Maybe, touched by my passing and remembered of their own mortality, they'll forgive me and thus set themselves free and find healing. Perhaps they might even be moved to say a prayer for a selfish, vain, lustful, greedy, superficial, vengeful, lying scoundrel like me.

  5. Father,
    Why would you agree to "perform" a Memorial Mass for an unknown person, especially since you can't find the definition in the "Big Book of Funeral Law"? Did you have a conversation with the heathens who wanted this Mass? Discuss preparations? It sounds like you just agreed, because well, that's the new order of things, and as clever as you like to be in your criticisms, you seem to fall in line with the rest of us (see lots of great adjectives above regarding poor Augustine).----Also, you mentioned that "you had a funeral a few weeks ago".....Did you say the Mass, or simply attend? If you said the Mass, why would the undertaker be selecting the readings? You weren't aware of what was going to take place before hand? Do you write just to vent? (I totally understand that) Do you write just to blast the church? Do any of your "best practices" ever come into practice? Or do you just like to complain? Hey - I like to complain - it's just that you seem to want change and yet it seems you're still serving bratwurst at Irish Wakes - Change is scary, but why don't you start us off by saying "Time Out" - And after you've changed the funerals, could you work on the schools? I've tried - but I don't have a collar, so no one really wants to listen to me.

  6. Very true: there's been a move towards the "celebration of the life of ..." rather than "prayers for the repose of the soul of ..." And the eulogies get longer and longer. Sometimes I feel that these are rather self-indulgent, and more for the benefit of the speaker than the deceased.

    Just one point, though. Surely it's not "internment", as they're not being put in a prison camp! It's "interment" because they're being put in the the ground (in-terra-ment).

  7. Thank you for this, Father. I just got back from one internment, Protestant Episcopal, and one funeral mass. The internment lacked so much, but I already enrolled my uncle for masses for his soul and have been praying for him myself as well.
    The Catholic Funeral Mass was held in the ugliest church in all of Christendom. It was a "celebration". I have to say that the priest followed the Missal, which was a relief, but nobody outside of his prayer mentioned the necessity of praying for her repose nor purgatory. There were lots of non- Christians and unchurched at the funeral and it was a lost opportunity to tell them of the love, provision of God and each of our eventual ends at the judgment seat of God. Your explanation is comforting and irritating. I've decided to write a list of instructions for my own funeral, including urging to penance and prayers for my soul, going to Confession for those in attendance and that I expect them to pray for me and my journey, hopefully into the presence of God, while I pray for them for the same. Thank you, again, Father.

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