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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
— 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