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Some Things To Help You With Funerals

Catholic Funerals
Catholic Morality
Order Of The Mass
Liturgy and Cycles
Regarding Saints
The Eucharist

Seven Essential Elements of A Healthy Funeral

Healthy grieving is the servant of life well lived with God and one another

By Nestor Gregoire, O.M.I.

When a death occurs in any family, their own meaning-system comes immediately to the forefront of their lives. How they will mark the death, the pain of separation and the meaning of their own lives is exhibited in the funeral celebrations that they will have.

It is in moments such as this that we appreciate the meaning the Christian faith brings to living, to being born and to dying. Even if family members do not make a concerted effort to put meaning into dying, almost always they look for people (i.e., a church community) to give this painful moment meaning.

There is a healthy way to deal with death and an unhealthy way to deal with pain and grief. The seven elements of a healthy funeral cannot be learned from a textbook or from a contemporary song on a CD. This is the wisdom that has been gleaned through the tears and suffering of countless people who have preceded us and share the wisdom of their own experience. We learn to deal with death within the community, church, family and our own culture.

  • This Is a Very Basic Human Need

Funerals are always for the living. The living must gather together to remember, to share the story of the loved one and to be supported by the living God. A funeral is never a selfish event. We gather in all our limitations as human beings. We stand needy, searching for direction and support in all our tears. The process of the funeral is meant to help us reach into the depth of our life-meaning to come to terms with the pain of the loss.

From time to time there will be a directive in the obituary column which indicates that there is to be no funeral. Although this might be motivated by consideration to the living it is something that should never be done. Those left behind must not be cheated of their need to cry, to share their pain with others and to hand the deceased over to the Divine.

Experience has taught us that if a human being does not grieve over the death of the loved one at the proper time (the weeks and months following the death) they will have to come to terms with the harsh reality of death somewhere along the line.

As a Church we tap into the wisdom of the generations who have gone before us. There is much wisdom to be learned from the necessity of taking enough time to prepare for and grieve through the funeral. Do not rush.

Grief can never be hurried or fixed into neat time slots. Only when we have worked through this suffering can our regular life be regained once again. The pain of the loss will not disappear. We learn to live in a new way without the loved one.

The North American culture may not understand the demands of some cultures that a widow was to wear black after the death of her husband. What we fail to observe is that the black dress, the sign of mourning and grieving, was to be worn only for a specific period of time.

  • The Power of Ritual

When the time was complete, she must put back her ‘‘ordinary’’ clothes to indicate that she was now ready to continue living and seek a new husband if possible. Such cultures have the wisdom and the structure to make and share their grief with others. It is not hidden but dealt with in a public manner.

Human beings, as they come to terms with their deep pains, must live and work into the meanings that the rituals of dying bring. Many clergy will testify to the power that ritual has in dealing with death.

At funerals there are usually some participants who are ignorant of the meaning and procedures of the funeral liturgy but afterwards are very appreciative for having participated. They picked up on the non-verbals, and it resonated in their hearts. Ritual has power beyond the words and hymns of the day of the funeral ritual.

  • Rituals Express a Healthy Life

The funeral rituals must not be confined to the liturgy in the church, which is a very public sphere. We also need to develop rituals that are user-friendly for the home. Is it possible to have a daily prayer service for the family, around their kitchen table, each day leading up to and following the funeral in the church?

The rituals are the tools, the communication, that we use to convey, share in and move into the deeper meanings of life. Our rituals move us where words cannot touch. It is through rituals that we live with the divine.

It is in ritual that we can open ourselves to the workings of God in our lives. Rituals seek to make present the very grace of God for us in this time of confusion.

Rituals cannot be precise. Their power and usefulness come directly from their power to evoke, to pull from within the community, from deep within the individual, the meaning and experience of God. It is through participation in the rituals that we can be empowered by the grace of God.

Our rituals work most powerfully when we are not aware of them because we have become an essential part of the ritual action. Our funeral rituals are not actions we do, but rather are the way that we live through the pain and suffering of death and separation. We, the family and friends, must be the living part of the ritual actions and prayers.

Even when the person is unknown, the ritual brings them into the liturgical action and the meaning that works within the community of faith. No one is left untouched by the power of God prayed, sung and preached among us.

  • 1. Encountering

The funeral must first be a liturgy of worship. All who have gathered have come to be touched and shaped by God and to give adoration and thanksgiving to God. This is problematic today when many are uncertain about their place in a liturgy of worship.

Our eyes must indicate that we are in a holy space. The cross, Easter candle and lectionary should be clearly visible as the center of our prayer. The flowers and photos must be very secondary. Always stand at the back of the worship space. Observe what is clearly visible. What holds the attention of the gathered people? The message must be that we have come to meet and live with our God, powerful Creator, Redeemer and life-giving Spirit.

The liturgy, without having to be imposing, leaves no doubt that it is Christ who leads us. We have been baptized into the life and mystery of Jesus Christ. He has died and risen for us.

Now we pray that the fullness of the mystery of Christ be made real for the deceased. Our prayers make it clear that it is God whom we ask to forgive our sins and it is always His Son who will lead us to eternal life. We cannot do this under our own steam.

Today, when so many of the gathered folk are unfamiliar with the power of the Word of God, it is significant that the homily make clear who is in charge here. This is all about what God is accomplishing in Christ. We share in the promise of the Resurrection as we share in his very life here on earth.

The funeral liturgy should not be rushed. We must not cave in to the uneducated people who insist that it ‘‘be short and simple.’’ Such people should never doubt that many others here have come to give glory to God and be touched by His Word. God is first and foremost in this funeral celebration. 

  • 2. Listening

The Word of God is always central to our funeral liturgies. With a very human voice, God is speaking to us. In a gentle manner the gathered congregation needs to be led to be attentive to God’s Word and be called to respond to the ways God is moving among us in consolation, support, encouragement, forgiveness and challenge.

We seek to be led to join our lives to the dying and the rising of Jesus. His Paschal Mystery must be our own. In this particular funeral celebration, it must embrace the deceased and all who share in this event.

The homilist seeks to lead the people to express sincere thanksgiving and to allow the Spirit of God to deepen their own dying to sin and living with all their energy for God.

The listening and responding to the Word of God is often a weak part of our funeral liturgies. Many of the participants are unfamiliar with the Scriptures and unsure what they are supposed to do with the reading and preaching of the Scriptures except to sit there politely. Some teaching is necessary here to bring about a minimal response in the congregation.

  • 3. Thanksgiving

Each liturgy proclaims the mighty works of God. Our response is manifested in thanksgiving. The tone is always gratitude for the actions of God.

Today, in a world where we feel that we are owed health and a comfortable life style, the spirit of gratitude must be spoken and nourished. As human beings we have no right to anything. All is gift! The cup of coffee that we enjoy in the morning is all gift. The love of God that has been showered upon us this very day is all gift.

When we come to the time of the funeral, all families must be encouraged to remember the loved one, to tell the stories with gratefulness in their hearts. This is the very spirit with which we live, and this is the spirit that we bring as we make farewell.

We take the life of the deceased, however long or short, and speak our gratitude to God and to one another. The love of this person was all gift. Nothing was ever owed to us, least of all the love the deceased shared with us.

The funeral liturgy calls us to make this thanksgiving explicit and particular. We are people who are deeply loved and wanted by God. The prayers and homily must seek to lead these gathered to give thanksgiving to God.

Our prayer must clearly speak out the feelings of gratitude that are in our hearts, now made very specific as we give thanksgiving for the person who has died. This life has been a gift to us.

As we worship and give thanksgiving to God, we express our appreciation for the blessing the deceased has been, and we beg forgiveness of our sins and the sins of the one who has died.

A very meaningful part of the funeral liturgy has been the use of the Easter candle which we place beside the casket. At the end of the homily, which makes clear how the Easter candle symbolizes Christ is our light and the very light of the world, I try to lead everyone in the longer silent moment to focus their eyes on the candle and, in their hearts, give the deceased to the Lord.

Each one must give the loved one to his or her final destination which is to be with the Lord. This time of prayer must be done in thanksgiving for the life and love of the deceased. 

  • 4. Remembering

The time leading up to and following the funeral liturgy must be filled with storytelling. We have many great memories that we want to share with each other. In today’s urban environment, our funerals are much too rushed. We do violence to our own grieving process by cutting short the time we need to remember, to share, to laugh and cry over the deceased’s life.

The discussion among liturgists about the place of the eulogy in the funeral liturgy is not recognizing how fast we move through the funeral process. Families are expressing a need to speak about the deceased.

Our culture has not provided the time and space to remember and tell the stories of the departed. There appears to be only one place to do our remembering, and that is when the people gather in church for the funeral liturgy.

Our great-grandparents came from a slower moving world, but they knew that it was essential that the folks gather for several days, tell the stories, eat, pray and spend time together with the loved one and the family. When it came time to take the body of the deceased to the church for the funeral, they had done all the storytelling they needed to do at that time.

One very wise First Nation Elder described this part of the grieving process very well. ‘‘We should have done all the talking we needed to do. The only thing left to do is to pray.’’

The North American manner of dealing with death does not pay attention to our need to remember. If the only place we have to speak about the deceased is at the funeral liturgy in the church, then we have overloaded the funeral liturgy.

A very common absence in our funerals is remembering the faith life, the prayer, the sharing in the life of the Church on the part of the deceased. At the end of the funeral liturgy a stranger should be able to identify this person as a follower of Jesus Christ.

This was a Christian funeral and the people expressed gratitude for the wonderful way that the deceased served and lived a life in Jesus Christ.

  • 5. Forgiving

No funeral should skirt around the tough issues of our relationship with the deceased. There may be situations when the gathered people need to reach out in forgiveness: toward the deceased, the deceased toward the family and the gathered people toward each other.

In northwestern Alberta, on a Cree reservation, there was a powerful moment at the funeral of a middle-aged man. Moments before the coffin was to be closed and the body carried over to the church, the deceased’s brother stood at the head of the coffin. He gestured to all the gathered people around the hall as he held the lid of the coffin. ‘‘If there is anyone who has anything against my brother, I ask you to come forward now and make peace. When the lid is closed there is no more opportunity to forgive.’’

Funerals can be a moment of healing and forgiveness if we but allow the pain and suffering to surface and bring it before God and one another. Do not hesitate to ask for forgiveness for the deceased and invite all present to reach out to one another in forgiveness.

There are several situations where the deceased has been very neglectful and hurtful to the family members. In the midst of all the pain and the desire for revenge we must bring the forgiving and healing power of God. This in turn can empower us to forgive one another.

The funeral calls for new moments of healing in our relationship with each other. God may be breaking through in new ways. The sign of peace is always a strong moment to become conscious of the healing ways of God.

  • 6. Surrendering

The time of the funeral must enable the living to place the departed where they need to be. Earth burial, which makes the separation of death very real, is our time to return the body to the earth from which it came. As our daily sustenance comes from the earth so now we return from where we came.

Our journey to the cemetery helps everyone come to grip with reality. It is our moment where we feel the full weight of our human body. It does end. The loved one has died and will never return to be with us. Painfully, with many tears, we let go. We say good-bye.

The final prayers over the grave speak out our confidence in God. Bless this grave. Make it holy. Watch over the final resting place of our loved one.

The prayers are very brief but the final blessing evokes such great hope in God’s care and the longing for eternal life.

As we have heard often during this liturgy, the human body has died but life is meant for greater glory. What falls apart into the earth is only meant to be the seeds of eternal life. We are meant for a much greater glory. This is the power that our faith brings to us. We can walk away from the cemetery with confidence. In all our tears, God will make the pain of death into the birth pains of eternal life.

Surrender we must, but we give our loved one into the hands of a loving God whom we trust to make real the promises that he has made to us through Jesus Christ when we were baptized.

If there is a healthy surrendering (which includes anger and tears) the living are now meant to return to life, with a changed reality, but not shackled by inconsolable grief.

  • 7. Embracing

A healthy time of grieving, of encountering the living God, and of handing the loved one over to God, must lead to embracing daily life once again. Life did not come crashing in on us. We can endure the pain, the emptiness and the loss because we have walked through the pain and the suffering with our God and many others who also share the pain and loss.

Death was not experienced alone. The sharing of the pain of separation now becomes our encouragement to move again to living.

A healthy funeral does not deny the pain and suffering, or the time that it will take to fully embrace life again. This is where the wisdom and practice of the Church has been so helpful. We live within the communion of saints. No one is ever meant to be forgotten.

The need to remember is extended each Sunday to our Eucharist where we remember those who have gone before us. From time to time the Sunday congregation needs to be reminded of this moment of memory for their own loved ones.

The funeral ritual has power beyond our understanding. No one can ever program the moments of thanksgiving, surrendering and embracing life once again.

The words, the hymns, the preaching and the ritual actions serve to make possible a healthy grieving. The deeper reality of giving the loved one over to God and letting go are aided by the prayer and worship lived by the gathered congregation.

Funerals are very significant moments in the life of every family. It is only when a family has grieved well, expressed their thanksgiving to God and to one another that they will appreciate how life-giving the Christian rituals of death are. Healthy grieving is always the servant of life well lived with God and one another.

— FATHER GREGOIRE, O.M.I., has been a priest for 30 years serving in parishes in Western Canada. During that time he also served as editor of the ‘‘Our Family’’ magazine for 11 years.

                                            Edited: December 29, 2006 - Webmaster: Webmaster
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