by Cardinal Timothy Dolan
‘Now and at the Hour of Our Death’
As you know, my first column in November, the month of the Faithful Departed, I like to reflect on our beautiful Catholic customs surrounding the passing of people we love. Some of these points you’ll remember from before, but they are worth repeating.
Jackie Kennedy once commented, “The Church may have flaws, but she sure comes through at birth and death.”
I’ll take that compliment!
November is the month Holy Mother Church invites us to contemplate dying, death, everlasting life, and the faithful departed.
Our wonderful Catholic traditions that surround dying, death, mourning, funerals, burial, and prayers for the dead are a sustaining part of our faith. However, as I listen to our parish priests, who are there on the front lines, I start to worry, as they do, that these sacred and helpful customs are fading away.
Those who do keep these strong Catholic traditions always report, “I don’t know what I’d do without our faith to get me through this time of loss.” Let’s not lose these rituals!
November is a good time to renew our commitment to them. Let me mention a few.
A Funeral Mass in the parish of the departed is expected. Since many of our elders now have family out of town, our priests are noticing that the family, who may have drifted from the practice of the faith, and who have to travel from afar for the funeral, is now saying, “Oh, we don’t need a Mass. Let’s just do a simple prayer service at the funeral parlor.” Here we have a Catholic who has taken his/her faith very seriously, and rarely if ever missed Mass, deprived of the funeral liturgy! This is not just! Maybe we’ll all have to begin leaving explicit instructions in our will that we want to be buried from church!
Our tradition tells us that a Funeral Mass is an act of faith in the power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus! While we indeed thank God for the life of the deceased, the Funeral Mass is a celebration of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and an act of hope that the deceased now shares in His victory.
Thus, the Funeral Mass is more about God than us. This should be especially evident in the controversial new practice of a eulogy. While a eulogy can be appropriate and meaningful—I’ve sat through some grand ones—they can be counterproductive and inappropriate—and I’ve weathered some of those. Here are some helpful ground rules for eulogies:
• they are more appropriate at the wake, at the closing of the casket (either at the funeral parlor, or at the parish prior to the start of Mass), or at the graveside, rather than at the end of Mass;
• if given at the end of the Mass, there should rarely be more than one; it should not go over four minutes; should be written out; and should touch on the faith of the departed.
• Whatever, a eulogy should not eclipse the majesty of the Mass, either by its length or frivolity.
• I trust each pastor to have his own policy on eulogies for the parish, taking these guidelines seriously.
The ancient custom of the Church, recently strongly affirmed by the Vatican, is that the body of the deceased be buried in a Catholic cemetery. Why? For one, this strongly shows our faith in the resurrection of the body; two, it demonstrates proper respect for the body, which, through baptism and the sacraments, has become a temple of the Holy Spirit; and, three, burial of the body in sacred ground encourages prayers for the deceased.
What about cremation? While burial of the body is the norm, cremation can be allowed. If this happens…
• the remains must be reverently reposed in an appropriate container;
• the cremated ashes should be at the funeral Mass;
• the remains are to be buried, not scattered, stored at home, divided up, or worn in jewelry!
Each Sunday at Mass we recite the Creed. The final line? “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead,” an article of faith taught by Jesus. That body, buried reverently, whole or cremated, will rise again, as will our own. I look forward to that. The bodies of the deceased are not charms, mementos, or a talisman, but rest in waiting for the resurrection.
Anthropologists tell us that you can best discover a culture’s values by how they treat babies (pre-born or born) and the dead.
We Catholics got it right. We don’t want to lose this supreme value!
A blessed November!
“Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them! May they rest in peace! Amen.”