The Reverend Know-it-All is at a convention. Something called “Hebrew Pot Shards and the Visionary Christian.” He has asked a local pastor to fill in for him.
I am fat. I am about 70 pounds overweight.
“Oh no, Father, you’re just big boned.” Or, “But you carry it so well!”
Nonsense! I’m fat. I weigh about 285 pounds. When I was edging toward the 300 mark my doctor told me that people who weigh over 300 pounds tend to die in their early sixties. I managed to lose about 15 lbs. It’s not for want of trying. I have been to Weight Watchers; I have done Atkins, South Beach Low Carb, Susan Powter Lo Fat and endless years of calorie counting. I won my college’s weight lifting record and used to run three miles a day. I still go to the gym almost every day, where I amble around on the track like some old hamster in a maze. But I am still fat. I heard a wonderful lecture the other day that pointed out with lots of graphs and charts that the single best way to gain weight is by going on a diet. So I guess I will be fat the rest of my life, or the next ten or twenty years if I am lucky.
I am old. I am on a collision course with my 65th birthday this year, if the fat clogging my arteries doesn't do me in, fulfilling my very thin doctor’s dire predictions. “Oh Father, you’re not old, 65 is the new 64!” Face it. I am old. I have worked two and three jobs since I was ordained, and though the two I have now — a wonderful parish and a very enjoyable radio gig — are pretty good, I have had some pretty stressful jobs arguing with committees and I am worn pretty thin, considering how fat I am.
I say all this, not just to gain your pity, though I will take all the pity I can get. I say it as a prelude to the very impolite letter I am about to share with you. As I see the end of life’s little conveyor belt coming at me fast, I realize I haven’t the time to be excessively polite.
As my own draws closer, I find that I don’t like funerals. They are huge source of stress in my life. I love my parish. Great folks. When one of them dies I take it pretty personally. It is hard to lose people like the ones I see in church every Sunday.
Most funerals that I offer, however, are the first time I am meeting the guest of honor. I don’t even mind this. What I mind is the angry letters that I get from people who “…aren’t from your parish but I found your performance at the funeral substandard.” I have actually gotten letters like this. I regularly hear that I was cold and impersonal. I have a hard time feigning intimacy with people I have never met. People who can convince total strangers of their deep affection are also found in an old though not particularly honorable profession. I have never had the desire to convince total strangers that I love them, no matter how much they pay me. All I can do is offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for repose of the soul of the departed. I am not a professional mourner, or a professional anything else for that matter.
The scheduling of funerals is also extremely stressful since I am pretty much the only fuse in the fuse box around here. An undertaker will call and say, “We have a request for a week from Tuesday for a funeral.” “
Sorry I can’t be there I’ve scheduled a whale-watching trip and annual silent retreat in Tierra del Fuego next week.”
Silence on the other end of the phone...... “But Father this is the only time that the whole family can be there! Can’t you postpone your trip?”
So you postpone your trip. You do the wake service and realize that you don’t recognize a single face, not even the one in the coffin. But it’s your job! At the Mass the next day it is apparent that no one in the congregation is an active Catholic, they don’t even seem to know the Our Father. At the internment you share the stage with a Baptist Minister who is from the wife’s side of the family or perhaps a shaman burning sage and chanting mantras while new age poetry is read. You have spent two days failing to satisfy the strange demand of people who wouldn’t know a Catholic priest from the Easter bunny, and frankly they would have preferred the Easter bunny.
Funerals have gotten out of control. I can’t take it anymore.
P.S. I can recommend a few Funeral Directors with whom I am happy to work. My favorite among these is Haben in Skokie. Smith Corcoran is also pretty good.
Here is the letter. Enjoy.
P.P.S. I mean it.
An open letter to Funeral Directors:
I am writing to define policy at St. Lambert’s.
There are essentially three kinds of funerals these days. They can be identified by the congregation’s response to the statement, “The Lord be with you.” Often it is a mumbled “Okay.” This means that the mourners are un-churched and have no idea what kind of building they are in. The second response is, “and also with you.” This means that the congregants were raised Catholic, but no longer go to church. The third is, “and with your spirit.” This means that mourners are practicing Catholics and a Funeral Mass has great meaning for them.
I am not writing to say that we will not bury those in the first two groups, I am writing to say that there are things that I will allow done at a funeral Mass for an active Catholic, and things that I will no longer allow. Let me first clarify my reason for writing.
The First regards the scheduling of funerals. There are a decreasing number of priests and there are more and more one-priest rectories. This creates a problem if Father has a day off planned. Funerals always trump a day off for Father — that is if he is a good and pastoral priest. This is nonsense. When a person loses a loved one it is one of the most important and difficult moments of their life. For you and me it is a rather regular occurrence. The business of funerals is not my job in the same sense that it is yours. For me it is a matter of personal concern if I know the person and have a genuine pastoral relationship with them, as it is with one of the “and also with you” crowd.
Second. People are clueless as to how to behave in church. This pertains to clothing. I will be absolutely brutally frank on this point. It is customary to get some young woman who hasn’t been in a church since she was seven to read at Grandma’s funeral. I had a construction crew working here a while back and they were always glad to have their work interrupted by a funeral. They would stand at the window ogling the grieving young women mincing by in stiletto heels wearing the little black dress with the low high hemline and the low neck line. The young women in the little black dress usually turns out to be the lector. The lectors have often never stood in a pulpit before. They have never even seen a pulpit before. By what logic are they fit candidates to exercise a ministry in the church?
Third. Eulogies. Eulogies are not allowed at Mass. Some brief words of remembrance about the faith of the deceased are allowed. The problem is that usually the deceased and the mourners have no faith to reminisce about. I have been at funerals during which eulogies droned on for an hour that principally spoke of vacation trips, beer and sporting events. This is ridiculous.
Fourth. Music. The “Okay” crowd wants Broadway show tunes and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” The “and also with you crowd” wants the songs they liked in first communion class when they were kids. “On Beagles Wings,” “Don’t Be Skeered,” “A Maze of Grapes” and “How Late thou Art.” Group A and group B don’t think highly enough of the sacrifice of the Mass to come to one now and then they don’t have the expertise to plan a liturgy and should not be allowed to.
Fifth. The wake service and the internment. I have been at wakes during which mourners just stared at me in bewilderment. They had never seen me or anyone else in a black shirt and plastic collar and they wondered why everybody shut up when I started talking. They weren’t going to shut up for some rude fellow in a plastic collar. This is the usual reaction of the “okay” crowd.
So here are the rules for St. Lambert’s:
We will say a funeral Mass for any baptized Catholic not under church sanction, who has died. The presence of a priest or some other minister at a wake service or internment should not be assumed. The family may request it. If the person arranging the funeral is registered and active member of the parish, a priest or deacon will be available for vigil service and internment and from them, no stipend or gift is expected. If they are not registered and active, the undertaker may find a deacon who can assist at the wake and or internment. I would suggest a stipend of $150.00 per service for a deacon or other minister who is hired. If paid by check the check should be made out to the minister and not to the parish. It is not a religious donation and as such it is not tax deductible.
No one may enter the pulpit at St. Lambert’s who is not a registered and active member of the parish, not as lector, eulogist, or singer. An exception will be made for family members of registered active parishioners who present a letter of recommendation from their pastor. For those entering the sanctuary, there is a dress code. Suit Jacket and tie for men, dress with sleeves and over the knee hemline or appropriate slacks and blouse with or without jacket. If the reader does not have appropriate attire, appropriate vestments will be provided.
No one may schedule a funeral at St. Lambert’s except the pastor. Do not say to the grieving family that “It will be fine to have the funeral next Monday.” The pastor or the church may not be available. The days of urgency in funerals are gone. People plan funerals sometimes weeks in advance. If funerals are planned according to the schedule of the undertaker and the mourners, the schedule of the pastor should be taken into account as well. Gone are the days when there were three or four priests waiting around for the phone to ring.
There may be no eulogies given in church. If a person is a registered and active member of the church, some brief word of remembrance may be shared. These remarks should be no longer than five minutes, delivered by only one person and submitted to the pastor in typed form or electronically before the day of the funeral Mass.
Only registered and active parishioners may choose songs, prayers or reading. An exception may be made if the deceased is a parishioner and the funeral planner is an active Catholic and can provide me with a letter of recommendation from his or her pastor.
Again, we will provide a funeral Mass for any baptized Catholic who is not under church sanction. However, only those who are church members may be involved with the planning of liturgies. The use of favorite songs, non-biblical readings and eulogies are your precinct at the funeral parlor. My job is to pray for the repose of the soul of the deceased.
So here are the rules:
- Only the pastor may schedule a funeral
- Upon request a priest will be present for wake services and internments provided the deceased of the family are registered and active parishioners.
- There will be no eulogies
- Before the Mass there may be brief words of remembrance by someone who is an active Catholic provided the deceased was an active and registered Catholic.
- No one may plan any part of the liturgy or exercise a liturgical role who is not an active Catholic.
Fr. Richard T. Simon
Pastor, St. Lambert