REPARING FUNERAL LITURGIES is a common feature of parish life. Very often, this takes the form of a priest meeting with the surviving family either at their home or at the parish office. Other times, the parish has a bereavement team that facilitates the process. It is an important task, especially because of the sensitivity and fragility that so often accompany the experience of grief. These can be moments for the Church to shine with warmth and compassion, but they can just as easily be moments in which we flounder.
It has often been noted that, in the Catholic faith, we “prepare” liturgies, we do not “plan” them. This simple precision of language helps to convey the true sense of what we should be doing. The reality in the Ordinary Form is that certain aspects of the liturgy do, in fact, have to be prepared. So, for a funeral Mass, what are those aspects that need preparation? Though probably not exhaustive, here is a sample list of questions to be raised in preparing the funeral:
1. Date & time of the Funeral Mass
2. Will any Christian symbols be placed upon the casket at the start of Mass?
3. Which readings (from the abundant options given in the Lectionary) are best suited for this Mass?
4. Who will read the readings?
5. Will there be family members bringing forward the offertory gifts?
6. Will friends or family members serve as pallbearers?
7. In what cemetery will the deceased be interred?
As anyone who has been involved in such preparations well knows, not every family that comes to the Church seeking a loved one’s burial is a perfect, Church-going, cradle-Catholic family. This can present significant challenges in preparing certain aspects of the liturgy, particularly if some members of the family are non-Catholic.
MONG the most difficult parts of the preparation can be the choice of readings. Very often (though certainly not always), the family members are totally unqualified to be making such choices.
One family I remember working with during my first year as a priest paged through the second reading options and asked if all the options were “this gloomy” and “mentioned sin.” Never mind that each of the Pauline options contains beautiful theology concerning how the death & Resurrection of Jesus have conquered sin and enabled us to have eternal life.
People often pass over the option from 1 Maccabbees because its opening word is “Judas” (probably not worth pointing out to them that this is NOT the Iscariot). The beautiful passage from Lamentations 3 is often similarly discounted when only read halfway through. I can hardly remember a time when a family has chosen the passage from Job, since they never get past the line referring to “Bildad the Shuhite.” There have been numerous requests, however, to read this-or-that poem or prayer in place of the sacred texts.
Offering the choice of readings might be something better reserved until later in the preparation meeting, once there has been sufficient time to gauge whether the family has the aptitude to make such selections. In fact, the choice might well only be offered to families who have demonstrated some knowledge of Scripture, or at least some connection with the Church or a relationship with Christ. It is, after all, not a God-given command that the family should be consulted about funeral readings. Nor is it clericalism to suggest that a priest (or committed layperson) could, in many cases, select more appropriate readings. This is very often (and increasingly) the case.
If nothing else, these encounters are a reminder to us all of the importance of training our people in the practice of the faith, which includes nourishing within them a love for the Holy Scriptures. Experience shows that marginal Catholics, as well as many rather involved Catholics, are sorely malnourished in terms of Biblical studies. And, as St. Jerome warns us, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
OTICE that the deceased’s list of favorite hymns is absent from the above list of things to be prepared for a Requiem Mass. Why? Because, like every other Mass, the Requiem has its own set of propers appointed to be sung at various points of the liturgy. These propers, when sung in their original form or even in some other adaptation, are so well suited to the Mass of Christian Burial. Their texts and melodies are eminently appropriate for conveying the hope, the sorrow, and the mystery of the occasion. One fantastic resource for preparing music for funerals is available through Gary Pekala and CanticaNOVA. Another very good resource is this post by fellow blogger, Andy Motyka.
Also absent from the list of preparations is any mention of a “eulogy,” since this is not something integral to the funeral liturgy. I have given a fuller treatment of this topic here.
The question of where to hold the wake is also absent from the list. Fuller treatment of that issue is available here.