On death, dying, and funerals

I’m by no means an expert on funerals, but – as the amateur critic always says – I know what I like.

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.

Favourite secular music might find a place in the Vigil, as well. People might pray the Rosary together, share memories of the deceased, listen to scripture readings, perhaps sing together.

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/

About joyfulpapist

JoyfulPapist is an adult convert to Catholicism, with a passion for her God, her faith, and her church.
This entry was posted in Liturgy, Living Catholic lives and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to On death, dying, and funerals

  1. johnhenrycn says:

    What a wonderful post.

    I often think about the end. I won’t speak of my thoughts on that now. JP’s words are more eloquent than mine; but here’s something that might bring a smile:

    “I have left instructions that I don’t want
    one of those bogus modern ‘services of
    thanksgiving’ for my misspent life. I
    certainly expect a proper requiem
    Mass, having great need of it, and it
    must include the
    Dies Irae in
    Latin. I require an eschatological send-off”

    Paul Johnson, The Spectator
    11 November 2006, p. 32

    … and something that might take away that smile:

    The Sequence

    “Dreaded day, that day of ire,
    When the world shall melt in fire,

    Death and nature stand aghast,
    As the bodies rising fast,

    Then before him shall be placed,
    That whereon the verdict’s based,

    When the Judge His seat shall gain,
    All that’s hidden shall be plain,

    Wretched man, what can I plead?
    Whom to ask to intercede,

    I, felon-like, my lot bewail,
    Suffused cheeks my shame unveil:

    Worthless are my prayers I know,
    Yet, Lord, do not let me go
    Into the flames of endless woe.

    Mournful day! That day of sights,
    When from dust shall man arise,
    Stained with guilt his doom to know,
    Mercy, Lord, on him bestow.



  2. johnhenrycn says:

    Uhmm…my efforts to leave comments on this blog (not this particular thread) are frequently frustrated.
    I know it’s a technical issue, not a personal one; but have you noticed there are few new commenters?


  3. Brother Burrito says:

    Once again, your two previous comments were put in the spam bin by Askismet, the WordPress spam canning bot, but strangely, not this one I am replying to

    No idea why it picks on you, and it is mainly you. (Have you upset some Masons? 😉 )

    Do you post here using a WordPress account, or by logging in with your email address?


  4. johnhenrycn says:

    I don’t know, BB. I created a WordPress username (johnhenrycn, because it wouldn’t accept johnhenry) and created a password, of course; but all I do is switch on the computer and go straight to the Web. I don’t go through my e-mail address, which reminds me, I think you have that address and I would ask that you expunge it, not that I care all that much, but if you can and would, it would be appreciated.


  5. Mimi says:

    Lovely post, Joyfulpapist, but you left out the wake!

    Don’t you have wakes in New Zealand?


  6. Gertrude says:

    Lovely post Joyful – but my preferance is with John Henry’s quote from Paul Johnson. I have a standing order with a (traditional)priest friend of mine – full High Mass Set (black vestments of course), coffin leaving to ‘In Paradisum’ (preferably chanted) and ‘Salve Regina’ at my graveside. The Requiem hopefully in the 1962 Rites (in Latin). Of course, my prayer is that by the time I come to go towards Our Blessed Lord – there might be a Priest able to say Holy Mass traditionally. As for secular music at the Vigil (or anywhere) if I believed I could come back and haunt the perpetrators (which I don’t!) – I would. For me secular music has no place in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Just a personal view!!!


  7. johnhenrycn says:

    BB, thank you for your e-mail this morning. I’m not at all concerned with my address in your safe hands. You know, ‘internet privacy’ is such a contradiction anyway. Completely unnecessary when people act like gentlemen. Completely useless when they don’t. All of us who use the Web are hostages to fortune in that sense. Sorry to go off on a tangent people.


  8. toadspittle says:

    “I know it’s a technical issue, not a personal one; but have you noticed there are few new commenters?” bemoans, JH insouciantly. (Yes, I know you can’t.)

    No JH, it is a personal issue. The innards of all computers are agnostic at best, and all have a built-in Catholic detector programmed to persecute you and your like whenever possible. But you already suspected that, didn’t you?
    World plot! Persecuted Papists! (Everyone gets a turn. Only fair.)

    Unfair? Yes, but so is life. “To them that have, shall be given,” etc.

    And yes, I also have noticed that there are few new ‘commenters.’ Possibly because most of it is not really worth commenting on, except to say, “What a wonderful post, Gladys!”

    And indeed, what more is there to say, in most cases?

    I, for one am agog to see how The Newman Saga turns out! And who dunnit!


  9. Mimi says:

    Colonel Mustard in the library with a hammer?


  10. toadspittle says:

    Protestant parson in the presbytery with a poker?


  11. johnhenrycn says:

    It’s only 7 weeks old now, Toad. Build it and they will come.

    (Vicar in the vestry with a vibrator?)


  12. Brother Burrito says:

    Queen in the quad with a Qinetic-supplied weapon (Q gun? anyone?)


  13. kathleen says:

    Having had a good laugh at the Cluedo players’ comments above, I would just like to get back to the topic……

    A few years back I and my family went to the tragic funeral of one of my sons’ best friends, a 16 year old boy called Francis who had died from bone cancer. The cancer had been diagnosed a year before and was of a very aggressive form, so it advanced quickly in spite of the chemotherapy treatment. Right from the start Francis showed such courage, such a wonderful spirit, wanting only to continue leading as normal a life as possible under the circumstances. The company of his friends was what he appreciated most during his last months when he could no longer get out of his bed. My son and two or three others, Francis’s closest friends, made sure at least one of them was always with him once school was over often staying till late at night, playing games, laughing and chatting, or just sitting with him as he got weaker and sicker. Eventually he lost consciousness and died in hospital.

    At the funeral Mass, when there was not a dry eye in the packed church, the priest (at the request of Francis’s devastated parents) made a mention of the witness of Francis’s faithful friends, and how their loyalty and steadfastness had made the boy’s last months joyful, in spite of the terrible physical agony he’d suffered.

    Of course no words suffice to console someone who has lost a loved one (especially a child) even if they have true Faith, as Francis’s parents have; but it is surely a comfort to know that everything possible was done to make their last days on Earth as happy as possible, surrounded by family and friends.

    On the eve of His Passion, Jesus asked His Apostles to stay awake and pray with Him a while.


  14. toadspittle says:

    I didn’t intend to write this, but reading Kathleen’s story somehow persuades me.

    Yesterday, during the annual fiesta mass for Santo Tomas, the village patron, a French pilgrim and his wife were driving back from Santiago. Outside our village the wife fell asleep, crashed the car and was killed. The man walked away without a mark. He is now staying with us until Monday at least while things are sorted out.

    He has been very brave so far. I don’t know what else to say.


  15. toadspittle says:

    I suppose I intended to comment on the meaninglessness of it all – Kathleen’s story and now mine.
    But it seems meaningless even to comment on the meaninglessness.


  16. Pingback: Consciousness and Spirituality

  17. Brother Burrito says:

    God rest her soul, and help him in his troubles.


  18. joyfulpapist says:

    Few new commenters? According to what standard?

    As JH says, the site is seven weeks old. It is attracting a goodly number of visitors every day, and a few new commenters pop up every week. My own blog has been going for nine months; I have a quarter the total number of visitors. I’ve read other blogs celebrating the 10,000 visitor mark after two or three years (and both my site and CP&S have passed that one).

    All are welcome here who come to debate with goodwill. But sharing information that we all agree on is also a valid use of the blog, and clearly of interest to visitors.


  19. kathleen says:

    Toad yesterday at 6:22…. re the accident of those French pilgrims:

    What a terrible thing to happen just after making a pilgrimage to Santiago!
    Thank you for telling us about this tragedy, and I shall certainly pray for the repose of the soul of the woman, and for her poor bereaved husband.

    But I do not agree that it is all meaningless. Not if you have Faith in God anyway, and in His everlasting Goodness and Mercy.
    The ways of the Lord are fathomless and we often cannot understand why disasters, suffering, death and destruction befall some and not others.
    Yet life is a pilgrimage, and this world is not our final destination. While some remain here for almost a century (or more!) some have a short journey. What counts is how we use this time granted us on Earth to journey towards God. In Heaven all our questions will be answered, all our hopes and desires will be fulfilled.


  20. joyfulpapist says:

    As CS Lewis put it: School is out, and the eternal holidays begin.


  21. toadspittle says:

    Eternal holidays! What an appalling thought. Lewis must have been a schoolteacher at some point. But then, as Noel Coward put it, “Work is so much more fun than fun!”

    (Although his work was writing plays and songs. Not shoveling raw sewage, like poor old Omvendt.)


  22. toadspittle says:

    We got news yesterday that the Powers That Be in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral held a high mass for the woman yesterday – the whole nine yards, or at least seven – priests that is, and a choir, botafumario and everything.

    Can’t hurt.


  23. kathleen says:

    Thanks Toad…….. glad to hear it.
    That’s what we most need once we pass from this world to the next – prayers and the sacrifice of the Holy Mass to be said for the repose of our souls.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s