Funeral Foibles

By Msgr. Charles Pope:

catholic-funeralI was recently asked by the Archdiocese of Washington to lead a workshop for catechists that focused on the catechetical teachings implicit in the funeral rites of the Church. At first, I was somewhat surprised at the request. It didn’t strike me as the first sort of topic that one might speak about when speaking to catechists.

But quickly, I warmed to the topic. I have long held that the way in which we conduct ourselves at funerals, in the manner of preaching and other visible attitudes, not only teaches poorly, but is often a countersign of biblical and Church teaching on death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

The rites themselves are not flawed (though the huge number of readings can bewilder and are not of equal value or helpfulness). Rather, a whole host of problems both sociological, and related to liturgical execution, create an environment that not only obscure Catholic teaching on death, but often outright contradicts it.

In this particular blog post, I would like to lay out what I think are some of the problematic issues that surround typical funerals today. And in tomorrow’s post I would like to lay out an outline of a typical funeral sermon I preach in which I seek to remedy some of the misunderstandings that are common today.

So for today here are some problematic issues and attitudes that tend to surround funerals. I do not say that every family or parish exhibits all these problems, only that these are common in various combinations and degrees.

1. There is a basic confusion about the purpose of a funeral. Many people arrive at the parish to plan a funeral and their basic presumption is that the funeral is all about “Uncle Joe,” who he was, what he liked, etc. This then generates a whole series of, often inappropriate, requests. For example,

  1. Uncle Joe’s favorite song was “I did it my way.” Therefore we want a soloist to sing this song.
  2. Uncle Joe’s three favorite nieces want to say “a few words” about what a great uncle he was. Therefore we want them to be able to speak after communion.”
  3. Of course we all know what a great football fan Joe was, that he never missed a game, so we are going to have flowers in the team colors, want a football on a table near the altar,  and ask that a letter from the team’s front office be read in tribute after communion, and after the nieces.
  4. Also, Father, in your sermon please remember to mention Joe’s great concern for this cause, and that cause.
  5. And don’t forget to mention that he was a founding member here at St Esmerelda and the president of the Men’s club.

Well, you get the point. But of course none of this is the real purpose of a funeral at all. Like any celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, the essential purpose of the funeral is the worship of God, the proclamation of the Gospel, and the celebration of the paschal mystery. Secondarily, the Mass is offered for the repose of the soul the deceased and should invite prayer for the judgment they face, and for their ultimate and happy repose after any necessary purification.

The sacred liturgy exists to glorify God, not man, to praise the Lord, not Uncle Joe. No matter how great a guy Uncle Joe was, he doesn’t stand a chance if not for Jesus, and lots of grace and mercy. Joe needs prayer more than praise, and whatever gifts he did have, were from God. God should be thanked and praised for them.

Thus, too many funerals focus on man, not God. Too many funerals focus on human achievements rather than the need for grace and mercy, and gratitude for for all that has been received.

As a practical matter, in my parish we do not allow family members to speak during the funeral Mass at all. If there is someone who wants to say a few words, this is done prior to the beginning of the Funeral Mass. But once Mass begins, it is the Mass, and only the Mass.

2. Most families and funerals miss a step. Upon the death of a loved one there are often instant declarations that “they are in heaven.” Perhaps there are other euphemisms such as “He is in a better place…” or “She’s gone home.”

Of course such judgments are grossly presumptive and in making such declarations, people sit in the judgment seat that belongs only to Jesus. If I were to say, “Uncle Joe is in Hell” people would be rightly angry and say I was being “judgmental.” But of course those who say “Joe is in heaven” sit in the very same judgement seat and are also being “judgmental.”

Further the scriptures don’t teach that people, even believers, die and go straight to heaven. No, there is little pit stop first, an appointment to keep. The scriptures say,

  1. It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27)
  2. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor 5:10)
  3. Always speak and act as those who are going to be judged under the law of liberty. (James 2:13)

Thus instant promotions of the deceased to the upper realms of heaven are inappropriate. Rather, we give them to the Lord with our prayers, asking for a merciful and kindly judgment, and that any necessary purification be accomplished soon.  The prayers for, and comments about the deceased can include gratitude for their life and the gifts they brought, but ought never to fail to mention that they go to judgment and should not gloss over the need to pray for them, more than praise them.

3. Purgatory and the concept of purification after death are almost never mentioned, but they should be. But of course purgatory is the likely destination of most of the dead for at least some purification after death.

The whole point of praying for the dead at all is purgatory! If the dead are in heaven they don’t need our prayers. Sadly, if they are in Hell, they can’t use them. It is those in purgatory that both need and can use our prayers.

Jesus says, You must be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect. (Mat 5:41). This is a promise, not a threat. And St. Paul says, May God who has begun a good work in you bring it to completion. (Phil 1:16)

Most of us know, if we were to die today, that we are not perfect, and that God’s work in us is not complete. Purgatory just makes sense, and clergy ought not be so reticent to preach it clearly at a funeral. We are not just here to pray for the family, we are here to pray for the deceased because they have gone to judgment. And even if the judgment isn’t for Hell (thanks be to God), there is likely some finishing work needed, some purgation, and our prayers make a difference. More on this tomorrow.

4. The Immediate family is not the only object of concern and ministry at a funeral. While every priest and deacon who preaches is aware that a funeral is a sensitive moment for the family, he cannot simply and only minister to them. Present at most funerals, (in great abundance, frankly), are many who are unchurched, and who need to be called to Jesus. Sometimes these are also in the immediately family.

The clergy should not simply let this moment pass. Honestly the only time many clergy see a lot of these people is at funerals. Waiting for “another time” to call them to repentance and to follow Jesus is not an option. They are here now, and they must be called now.

Therefore a good funeral seeks to minister not only to the immediate family, but to all in attendance who are in varying states of spiritual health or disease.

Pastoral experience tells me that upwards of 80% of funeral attendees and in a very grave spiritual condition. Most of them are not serious about their spiritual life, they are not praying, they are not reading Scripture, they are not attending Mass or going to any service on Sundays, and many are in very serious and unrepented mortal sin. This is just a fact.

And to have that many at a funeral and say nothing to them at all about their need to repent and call on Jesus, is malpractice. Priests, whether they like it or not, are watchmen for the house of Israel. They must go on ahead of the Judge to follow and summon people to repentance and saving faith.

This can be and should be done at funerals. It is possible to do so with loving conviction and a passionate cry.

I have done this for many years at funerals and have almost never received complaints. To the contrary, I have received many expressions of gratitude from people who are desperate for their wayward relatives to hear such a message. I have also joyfully received back a number of people to the practice of the faith on account of it.

Thus funerals must minster to everyone. They are moments that are pregnant with meaning and possibilities. They are evangelical moments.

It is generally agreed that things are out of balance most Catholic funerals. Our silence about important matters, such as judgment, purgatory and a proper preparation for death makes a good deal of what we do unintelligible. Why are we offering Mass? Why do many of our prayers ask mercy and beseech the Lord to received our deceased into heaven? If its all certain and even a done deal (since Joe is already “in a better place”) why do any of this at all?

The priest should surely speak with confidence to the love and mercy of God and assure the family in this regard, especially if the deceased had faith. The Lord Jesus loves sinners and died for us. Surely he will have mercy, if it is sought.

But God’s mercy cannot be preached without any reference to human freedom and choice. Neither can judgment be understood  without any reference to the promise of perfection and the need for it before we can enter heaven. Scripture says regarding heaven, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27) and describes the denizens of heaven as the spirits of the righteous made perfect (Heb 12:23). And we are admonished, Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14).

All of these notions must balance and frame our discussion of mercy and the confident hope that we can give our loved ones back to God.

But too many Catholic funerals lack this this balance. And this lack is on the part of both the families who often speak of salvation without reference to judgement, grace or mercy, and the clergy who often fail to preach in a way that sets forth a clear teaching on death, judgment, Heaven, (purgatory) and Hell.

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