It’s a function of my age and the size of my extended family that I’ve been to a number of funerals in the last 18 months. I’ve been to funerals for Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians -practicing and not practicing – for a number of indeterminate theists, for an agnostic and for a self-declared (and devout) atheist.
Last Tuesday, the funeral was for a family connection – the mother-in-law and grandmother of relatives of mine. She had died aged 95, in a clean bed, with her family around her, having just received a blessing from her minister. She was a devout Presbyterian, a member for close on fifty years of a church she helped build in the 60s, a widow for forty years. The minister had known her for more than a decade, and the church was packed with friends, relatives, and fellow parishioners. The songs were her favourites – two good traditional hymns I remember from my protestant youth, and a hymn that was new to me. The eulogies spoke of her love for her family, her service to the community, and her deep and abiding faith.
By contrast, earlier this year, I attended another family funeral, likewise a connection by marriage. She died in her 70s, also in a clean bed with her family around her. No minister – she had given up religion in her 30s, and given up living in her 60s when her husband died. For eight years, she’d been slowly pining away. The funeral parlour chapel was packed with friends and relatives of her son and three grandchildren – and a small handful of friends left from before her long mourning. The funeral director (who had never met her in life) referred to her by her Christian name, but repeatedly got details of her life wrong. The songs were secular, all but the last which was a Sunday-School song – a favourite from her childhood. The eulogies spoke of her good years when her husband was alive – family trips, crafts, a talent for friendship – all immolated with her husband when he was cremated.
At this week’s funeral, there were tears – but also a sense of celebration of a life that, on the whole, was well lived. At the earlier one, the mourning predominated – not just for the loss, but for the waste of the past few years.
My favourite type of funeral is the full-on Catholic event – starting with the Vigil the night before, then the solemnity and ritual of the Requiem Mass, and finally the interment. Mourners are encourage to attend all three, because together they make up the full funeral liturgy.
I missed the Vigil for my dear friend Sr Genny – I’d have loved to have been there, but the convent had our old number, and we didn’t know she’d died until the morning of the funeral. Again, a death in a clean bed – she was in her 90s, and attended to her death by her sisters in religion. She had been a sister of Mercy for over 70 years.
At Catholic funerals, the eulogies are said the night before, at the Vigil. At Sr Genny’s no doubt they told again the story of her last dance party, and the man who asked if she would go out with him the next week. ‘I told him I would be busy, dear,’ she used to say. ‘I thought he might be embarrassed if I told him I was entering a convent the next morning.’ She’d spent most of her adult life, through to ‘retirement’, teaching. Then she became a parish worker, and a legend for her ability to gather ‘volunteers’. ‘What sorts of things do you like doing for the parish, dear,’ she asked us, the first time we attended church in our new parish. And five minutes later I was on the readings roster and being introduced to someone else who was interested in youth groups, and my husband was booked to transport her to visit ‘the elderly’. She visited the elderly, many of whom were younger than her, long after her eyes gave out, right through an encounter with cancer, and until her increasing lack of mobility made it hard to get in and out of the car.
The Mass – or a prayer service for those whose families prefer it – celebrates the hope Christ’s death and resurrection holds for all of us, and especially the fullness of life promised to the one who has died. The family can choose from appropriate Scripture, hymns, and prayers, and the priest will give a brief homily proclaiming the good news of Christ’s victory over death.
The committal at the graveside or crematorium includes a brief reading, prayers, a blessing over the coffin, and a gesture of farewell, such as placing flowers or earth on the coffin.
Together, the three parts of the funeral make a powerful opportunity to celebrate the life of our loved one, to mourn the separation that death has caused, and to be comforted in knowing that the separation is only temporary.
If you would like to know more about Catholic funerals, the New Zealand Catholic bishops have authorised a comprehensive online guide: http://www.catholicfunerals.co.nz/