As a young seminarian, I attended the funeral of the brother of a high school classmate and friend. The deceased was a young man, a husband and father of two children, who died tragically in an accident while serving in the military. Two images of that day have left a lasting impression: the first, the young widow, weeping, being supported by her family as she entered the church behind the casket of her dead husband; the second image, that same woman, standing on her own, holding a hymnal while singing the closing hymn as she followed behind the casket of her husband as the funeral procession left the church. What had caused this dramatic transformation? The answer is as simple as it profound: the power and grace of the funeral liturgy of the Church, carefully planned and executed by a sensitive, faith-filled pastor, transformed grief and sadness into renewed faith and hope for a family who had entered prayerfully into the suffering, death and rising of Jesus that is celebrated in the funeral Mass.
There is an oft-quoted saying about the liturgy of the Church: the law of prayer establishes the law of belief; that is, the way we pray both expresses and establishes what we as a Christian people believe. This is especially true of the funeral liturgy. In every Mass the Church celebrates Jesus’ Passover from death to life; in every Mass those who have been baptized into the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection are renewed and nourished by the wisdom of God’s word and the gift that is the Eucharist. That remembrance and celebration of Jesus’ suffering, death and rising is most evident in the prayers of the funeral Mass.
There is a trend in our society today to speak of funeral rites as a celebration of the life of the deceased. While celebrating the life of our loved ones is important, that celebration is best observed at the time of the viewing or visitation or when family gathers after the funeral rites. The funeral Mass is first and foremost the time when the Church gathers to pray on behalf of the deceased, whose life of faith, begun at baptism, was strengthened at the Eucharistic table. At her funeral rites, the Church commends the dead to God’s merciful love and prays for the forgiveness of their sins. At the funeral Mass the Church also ministers to those who mourn the loss of a loved one as the proclamation of God’s holy Word and the Sacrament of the Eucharist bring healing and hope to hearts that are heavy with grief.
The funeral Mass begins with the reception of the body of the deceased at the entrance of the church. That Rite of Reception calls to mind the baptism of the person who has died. As the coffin is sprinkled with holy water the Church prays: “In the waters of waters of baptism, our brother/sister died with Christ and rose with him to new life. May he/she now share with him eternal glory.” After the placing of the white funeral pall (a reminder of the white baptismal garment) the casket is taken to the front of the church and positioned near the Easter candle, symbol of the Risen Christ and his continued presence to his church gathered in prayer. At this time a Christian symbol, (perhaps a bible, a cross, a rosary or prayer book of the deceased) may be placed on the casket.
Following the opening prayer, the Scripture readings, as indicated in the instruction for the funeral Mass: “proclaim to the assembly the paschal mystery, teach remembrance of the dead, convey the hope of being gathered together again in God’s kingdom, and encourage the witness of Christian life.” The Liturgy of the Word “tells of God’s designs for a world in which suffering and death will relinquish their hold on all whom God has called his own.” Those planning the funeral Mass are encouraged to select readings which “will provide the family and the community with an opportunity to hear God speak to them in their needs, sorrows, fears, and hopes.” Those selected to read the Scriptures should be given the text in advance and should be practicing Catholics who understand the power of God’s word and who have the ability to proclaim that word in an effective and reverent manner at a most sensitive time for family and friends.
The Church helps families to select music that is related to the Scripture readings. Music should be chosen which “supports, consoles, and uplifts the participants” and “creates in them a spirit of hope in Christ’s victory over death and in the Christian’s share in that victory.” This is not a time to select favorite hymns or secular music but rather a time to choose liturgical music that is able to be sung by the entire assembly, as it expresses the paschal mystery of Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion and triumph over death. Pastoral musicians are able to help families make selections of music proper to the liturgy and to the particular community where the funeral rites are being celebrated.
Some parishes allow for a eulogy before the funeral Mass is ended. The eulogy, delivered by a family member or friend, should be read from a prepared text and speak of the faith and Christian virtues of the deceased. While personal memories might be appropriate in service to a eulogy delivered at the conclusion of the funeral Mass, generally stories, anecdotes and memories are better shared when family members and friends gather for a viewing or visitation, or after the funeral rites are concluded.
As a priest, I have always found the prayers of the Final Commendation at the end of the funeral Mass to be among the most beautiful and meaningful in the liturgical life of the Church. The commendation acknowledges the reality of painful separation at the time of the death of a loved one and commends the deceased to the loving mercy of God. The Invitation to Prayer instructs the faithful: “Before we go our separate ways let us take leave of our brother/sister. May our farewell express our affection for him/her; may it ease our sadness and strengthen our hope. One day we shall joyfully greet him/her again when the love of Christ, which conquers all things, destroys even death itself.” As the coffin is incensed and the Song of Farewell is sung, we pray to the saints of God to come to the aid of our brother/sister and that the angels hasten to meet him/her and present him/her to God the most high. As a celebrant, when I incense the casket I pray privately that the person whom I am entrusting to the Lord will pray for me as a member of the Communion of the Saints.
With the closing prayer and final hymn, the spiritual life of the deceased comes full circle. As the body is carried from the church we pray that our loved one, who was carried into the church and entered into the life of Christ in the waters of baptism, may now enter the gates of paradise, welcomed by the angels and martyrs into the new and eternal Jerusalem to celebrate the heavenly liturgy before the throne of God.
I am often asked if it is depressing to celebrate funerals. There is a sadness that comes with leading a grieving family in prayer at such a sensitive time. But when the Church gathers and celebrates the rites of Christian burial for our brothers and sisters in faith, there is also present a calming peace and reassuring hope. I like to think of the funeral Mass, when we entrust our loved ones to the gentle mercy of our God, as a final gift we offer to those who have shared the joys and sorrows of our lives.
There is one experience surrounding the death of a parishioner that I found to be very sad and somewhat disconcerting. For several years I visited a woman of great faith whose life was marked by illness and grieving following the death of her beloved husband. She often told me of her desire to be buried with a funeral Mass at the parish church before being buried next to her husband. She told the same thing to the funeral director she knew well. When she died, the relative charged with making arrangements for her funeral would not allow her body to be taken to the church for a funeral Mass and would not allow me to conduct the Rites of Burial at the cemetery. And so, at the end of her life, this woman of faith was denied the benefits of a funeral Mass and was taken to her final resting place with no one present and without the supportive, intercessory prayers of Church.
That experience reinforced for me the importance of individuals making known to their funeral director, family members and most especially to the person charged with making funeral arrangements their desire for a funeral Mass and Christian burial rites at the cemetery. In most families this is not a concern, but for some families where there might be tensions or when family members may no longer be practicing the Catholic faith, it is important to leave instructions with the hope and request that those final wishes will be honored. A funeral is not for the consolation of the living alone but is also for the spiritual benefit of the one who has died.
In the first Preface for the Dead in the Mass of Christian burial there is a paragraph that expresses well what we as a church believe about the meaning and mystery of our living and dying. In addressing the Father, almighty and eternal God, the priest prays referring to his Son Jesus Christ: “In him the hope of blessed resurrection has dawned, that those saddened by the certainty of dying might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come. Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended, and when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.”
When the Church gathers for the funeral Mass, our prayer is always that Jesus, who wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, will be our comfort and hope as we entrust our loved ones to his mercy and peace.
By Father Chester P. Snyder
Special to The Witness
(Father Snyder is a retired priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg, who served as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Mechanicsburg from 1995 until his retirement in June 2012)