By CARDINAL TIMOTHY M. DOLAN
The following quote is attributed to Jackie Kennedy, who observed “Mother Church is at her best when she welcomes a baby at baptism, or bids someone farewell at a funeral.”
Quite a tribute, and well-worth thinking about this November, the month of the Faithful Departed.
November: darkness comes earlier, sunrise later; the wind turns colder, and the trees go bare; night seems to trump day.
Yes, no denying it: nature is dying.
So, Mother Church invites us to consider death! Let’s admit that we will all one day die, that this life is but a preparation for eternity, that, “by dying, Jesus destroyed our death, and by rising, restored our life.”
Perhaps with both a lump in our throat, and a smile of love and gratitude, we reverently recall those who have gone before us, thanking God for them, and asking Him to bring them mercifully to their true and eternal home of heaven, where we hope one day to see them again. Thanksgiving, this week, is a splendid occasion to praise God and gratefully recall family members and friends who have been with us in the past.
And let’s renew as well our appreciation for our consoling Catholic customs surrounding death.
Can I consider a few of them?
Thank God for our Catholic cemeteries. Our doctrine of the communion of saints—that all of us, living and deceased, are part of an infinite super-natural family—is so vividly obvious in the hallowed ground of a Catholic cemetery. We deserve to await the resurrection of the dead in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the household of faith in hallowed ground.
While cremation is considered licit for Catholics, the reverent burial of the body is still the norm. If cremation is chosen, the remains of the deceased should still be present at the Funeral Mass, and must then be interred in a cemetery, not kept on the mantle, or scattered on the golf course, or stored in a closet, or worn as a trinket. As the ritual of the Church is clear:
“The cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the manner in which they are carried, the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition. The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires. Whenever possible, appropriate means for recording with dignity the memory of the deceased should be adopted, such as a plaque or stone which records the name of the deceased.” (Order of Christian Funerals, Appendix No. 417)
A Catholic is entitled to a Mass of Christian Burial. Our pastors tell me that, sadly, more and more families, who perhaps do not share the depth of faith of the departed, want something “quick.” That’s just not fair to someone who has taken his or her Catholicism seriously! He or she deserves the beauty and power of the Church at prayer, a Mass of Christian Burial.
More and more of our parishes rise to the occasion and offer support and consolation to those mourning the passing of a family member or friend: The parish priest, deacon or pastoral worker welcomes them and helps them plan the liturgy; tasteful sacred music and song is supplied; often, the hospitality of a luncheon is provided. A funeral can even become an occasion of evangelization, as members of the family can return to the faith through a good confession and sincere prayer at the funeral and cemetery. So often, too, bereavement ministry becomes a vibrant part of parish outreach.
Remember, the Funeral Mass is not as much about the celebration of the life of the deceased, as it is about the celebration of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! True, while we gratefully remember the person who has died, praising God for his or her life, the center of everything is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—and the deceased’s incorporation into that mystery.
Now, for a rather delicate issue: eulogies! Seems like our Catholic people either love ‘em or dread ‘em: I have found myself very moved by some eulogies, and rolling my eyes and longing for conclusion in others. Here are some guidelines I have found helpful from our priests, people, and funeral home directors:
A eulogy—when allowed in a parish —is not obligatory, but optional. Families should not feel they must have one.
Eulogies are preferably given somewhere else besides the Funeral Mass: e.g., the Vigil Service at the wake, graveside at the cemetery, or at the luncheon after the burial.
If the eulogy is given at Mass, it could be given at the opening of the Mass, after the greeting of the body, before the opening prayer, to welcome the congregation and share with them some personal words about the faith of the departed. Or, it could be given after Holy Communion. In either case, the one presenting the comments should keep the following in mind:
One eulogy would seem adequate; the family is best advised to choose one representative to speak, not to send up everybody.
The eulogy should be brief, rarely if ever more than three or four minutes; at times the eulogies go so long they overshadow the Mass.
The eulogy should be written out, to assist the speaker if he or she is overtaken by grief; it is helpful to have the priest review it beforehand to make suggestions on its appropriateness.
The eulogy should stress the faith of the deceased.
I trust the wisdom and sound judgment of our pastors in setting policy for their parish.
And remember, “It is a holy and noble thought to pray for the dead,” as the Bible instructs us. Meaningful Catholic tradition such as Masses and prayers offered for the faithful departed, Mass cards sent to the family, visits to the cemetery, and prayers for the souls in purgatory are all most commendable.
So much for my November meditation. The Church is our home, our family. We especially appreciate her at the hour of death. We’re part of a communion that not even death can shatter!