The Coffin and the Urn

A very fine article by Paul Schaefer appeared in the Aug. 5, 2013, issue of Commonweal, entitled: “Looking Away: Funerals are Not What They Used to Be.”

As his title suggests, Schaefer indicated his concern as a Catholic of what has been happening to the traditional funeral. He centered on three areas of concern: a preference for a closed casket rather than an open casket; a preference for cremation rather than burial, and the family’s decision not to have a Requiem Mass. Schaefer implies that this avoidance of an open casket, preference for cremation and altering of traditional rites indicates a cultural movement of avoiding the reality of death.

Following, in the Sept. 13, 2013, issue of Commonweal, a writer in “Letters” (title “Ashes to Ashes”) commented on Mr. Schaefer’s article, saying that one of his own family members had been cremated recently and that he had been satisfied with the entire process from the visit to the gravesite.

Today, regarding funerals as such, I still hear many priests indicate that they prefer funerals to weddings. This preference stems from all the paperwork required in preparing for a wedding, especially if there is need for paperwork for mixed marriages or annulments. I personally do not affirm this, because if you use the Rite of Christian Burial guidelines, you can find excellent catechetical moments from the vigil at the funeral home to the Mass to the gravesite.

Funeral Vigil

This for me comes out clearer with the open casket at the vigil (closed casket at the funeral Mass). So, often when I administer the vigil at a funeral home, preferably with an open casket, but also if it is closed, I usually read Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 1:6-10) “We walk by faith, and not by sight.” Here at the vigil lies the body of the deceased. . . . this is not all there is, for our faith tells us that there is more. Seeing the dead loved one definitely speaks of death.

Here is what Canon Law states about cremation: “The Church earnestly recommends the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; it does not however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (Canon 1176). So the Church allows for cremation of the body, but priests must first make certain that the family who make such a decision are not making it because they fear the body has no more future in Christ.

Dividing Up the Ashes

After the funeral service, cremated remains need to be buried or else inurned in a columbarium. No one should scatter the ashes, keep them somewhere at home, divide them among the family members, or wear them in jewelry sold at some funeral homes. Such practices desecrate the deceased person, just as they would if a body lay inside the casket.

Recently, much to my embarrassment, at the end of the Mass, as I concluded the prayers for the cremated remains, the five children came to the pedestal, opened the container and divided the ashes into five cups. This taught me how much pre-catechesis needs to reach the ears of all concerned with cremated remains at a funeral service as a reminder that the ashes came from a body which was reborn in Christ.

At a Mass of Christian Burial with the casket present, the priest has very particular prayers to say about the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit; then he lights incense and explains that the sweet smell is an indication of all the works of the spirit in the deceased.

The Rite of Christian Burial contains significant prayers that carry with them special catechesis: when the casket enters the church, the priest sprinkles holy water over it with the prayer about baptism; then the white pall covers the casket indicating the white garment worn by the newly baptized; the lighted candle is placed in the center at the foot of the altar to represent resurrection (now it is lit only at Baptisms). To interweave these elements during any reflection can bring much understanding of the rites used.

Without the casket there, and with the cremated remains in a container, so much of the prayers will not be as effective because they emphasize this body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Time for Proper Catechesis

Unfortunately, we priests generally do not get much advance time to share the catechesis when a call comes for a funeral. If the relatives wish to have their loved one cremated according to the proper reasons, and then have the vigil service at a funeral home with no Mass of Internment, or body present at a Mass of Christian Burial, we do our best to do such with dignity, sympathy and sensitivity.

Recently some cartoonists have decided to do “comics” about funerals. In one from The Wizard of Id, the king, looking at a large frying pan containing a large egg frying over the fire, comments, “Humpty’s final wish was to be cremated.” In another one, from Bizzaro, two elderly ladies look into an open casket and comment, “Oh my, look at how worn his shoes are.”

FATHER BEAVER, O.S.B., a frequent contributor to The Priest magazine, died this past Jan. 15 at age 85. He was a monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He was ordained in 1985 and served in several parishes before he retired in 2011.

Celebration of Funerals
The Order of Christian Funerals (Ordo exsequiarum) of the Roman liturgy gives three types of funeral celebrations, corresponding to the three places in which they are conducted (the home, the church, and the cemetery), and according to the importance attached to them by the family, local customs, the culture, and popular piety. This order of celebration is common to all the liturgical traditions and comprises four principal elements: The greeting of the community ... the liturgy of the Word ... the Eucharistic Sacrifice ... and a farewell to the deceased.... The Byzantine tradition expresses this by the kiss of farewell to the deceased: By this final greeting “we sing for his departure from this life and separation from us, but also because there is a communion and a reunion. For even dead, we are not at all separated from one another, because we all run the same course and we will find one another again in the same place. We shall never be separated, for we live for Christ, and now we are united with Christ as we go toward him . . . we shall all be together in Christ.” — Catechism of the Catholic Church, see Nos. 1686-1690