The Funeral Liturgy

The Order of Christian Funerals clearly presents options which make a difference for people’s grief. During the rite of Christian burial, this ritual offers healing and hope for the bereaved. In our secular society the importance of funeral liturgies is not always emphasized. We hear stories of families ignoring even wishes of the deceased loved ones and not having funeral liturgies. Our parishes have to be more educated and aware of what is being offered when there is a death. The funeral liturgy completes the Christian’s baptismal journey and is necessary for our spiritual well being.

The funeral ritual takes place during moments of intense anxiousness. The more the pastor is aware of the congregation’s needs, the greater the possibility of healing. How the ritual fits into the pastoral setting is critical for its effectiveness. The Order of Christian Funerals must not be seen as merely a book with rubrics changes. It is much more. It is not just actions, but a new clear call to act for the community.

In the ritual, the deceased Christian’s final journey toward the kingdom of heaven, we pray at certain stations or liturgical moments. These intense moments are: prayers at the time of death, gathering together when first in the presence of the deceased, the vigil, the procession to the Church, and the final prayers of committal. These moments are opportunities for those bereaved to place their loss of a loved one into the wider context of religious faith.

The metaphor of journey provides us with rich insights and themes for funeral liturgies. Our words and gestures express how we respond to our losses. The ritual is sensitive to the theological importance of praying for the deceased Christian. This sensitivity extends to prayers for the bereaved. Both aspects are stressed by the ritual. The needs of the bereaved are not overlooked or diminished. Rather, they are focused upon so that those who remain can learn ways to begin coping and refocusing their lives.

The Homilist

During designated times for preaching at the vigil and the funeral Mass, the homilist sets the tone for the ritual’s pastoral care. In setting a compassionate and understanding tone, he provides a setting for the grief work to follow in the weeks and months after the funeral. The homilist is key in contributing to how well the bereaved will develop a spiritual relationship with the deceased Christian.

The homilist is the proclaimer and exclaimer of scriptural messages of hope, and by so doing is a pastoral caregiver. It is essential that homiletic themes be related to pastoral care. This means looking at themes which relate to the pastoral psychology of the faith community that hears the homily. This means exploring and presenting critical communal themes which will directly affect the way the congregation grieves.

Critical Moments

The funeral is a ritual of separation that differs in intensity from all other rituals of transition in our lifespan. Letting go of a physical relationship is one of the most painful aspects of living. It is a crisis which cries out for companionship and consolation. The suffering of severing a bond of love requires support.

The importance of realizing how members of the Christian community console one another has to be emphasized. When Christian members of the community act as consolers, a significant theme for grief management develops. The bereaved need to experience that they are included in the parish community while grieving. By proclaiming the context of being a loving, caring community, the homilist helps family and friends express their feelings and orients them during their loss.

The ritual highlights ministry and participation. There is ritual awareness of the importance of planning and carrying out the funeral rites while remaining mindful of the circumstances and needs facing the family’s unique loss. Every funeral is unique for those who are separating from someone they love. The ritual clearly points this out for us for us:

“In planning and carrying out the funeral rites, the pastor and all other ministers should keep in mind the life of the deceased and the circumstances of death. They should also take into consideration the spiritual and psychological needs of the family and friends of the deceased to express grief and their sense of loss, to accept the reality of death, and comfort one another” (No. 16, Order of Christian Funerals).

When we proclaim the meaning of community, the bereaved are made aware of the context of faith for their expressions of sorrow. Their loss is not solitary; they realize that the community is far more than just gathering together for an hour or two. The community will suffer the loss with the bereaved through the times ahead. This is very much in keeping with St. Paul’s theology of the Body of Christ. During the homily, the point is made that we are one in the Body of Christ. This theology helps the faith perspective that recognizes how the visible Church connects with the Communion of Saints.

For many who are grieving, this insight assists them in developing a new relationship in faith with their loved one. Rugged individualism is contradictory to healing for the grief stricken and leads toward complications in adjusting to the loss. It limits expression and consolation which are so necessary in going through good grief.

Our culture individualistic culture invariably disappoints people when they want to grieve. The culture either ignores, denies or remains indifferent to the needs of those suffering loss. As Christians within an alienating culture — or, as Pope St. John Paul II called it, a “culture of death” — the call to community to stay firmly against the culture is clear. The community, if it is to be truly Christian, must unite in the face of this fast-death culture where grief is limited to a quick church stop.

Crisis Ministry

Crisis ministry describes pastoral actions to assist people who are experiencing transitions or losses. The insights provided in the 1940s by psychiatrists who studied grief reactions formed the basis for information about people’s emotions during crisis. After the tragic Coconut Grove nightclub fire in Boston, studies were made of survivors and victims’ families. These studies provide us with important insights.

While the Coconut Grove fire, the Twin Towers in New York, the terrible loss of life in the 2010 Haiti earthquake and numerous recent community catastrophes involving great loss of life and well-being are significant, that same critical experience occurs day in and day out in the lives of those touched by death. The death of a loved one often puts a person into crisis just as real as the great human tragedies we read about and see in the media.

All of us can relate to the images we see on television. We certainly do live in a “global village.” Yet we need to place loss into a much wider context; there are important pastoral themes we can develop according to the funerals we celebrate.

The homily is an especially significant part of our liturgical experience with the bereaved. We cannot neglect important pastoral themes in our homiletic notes that will help us to minister in more effective ways.

An example of speaking to the needs of the bereaved was the funeral in Haiti for the Archbishop, Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot. The funeral for the archbishop symbolized for Haitians a funeral rite for the many thousands who had died. It was a time to orient those still stunned by loss to the reality of God who is loving and merciful.

The funeral Mass, which took place outside the ruins of the cathedral, included prayers for a whole nation which had been devastated.

One Sister said, “This is for everyone — those who couldn’t bury their loved ones, those still under the rubble. I say that this is a burial in the name of all those who are left anonymous and who will never be found.”

Simon Cabrera, of the Dominican Conference of Religious, who came to help Haiti after the earthquake, said: “In a way, it is like the (Archbishop) would deliver all of the dead into the hands of God.”

These are comforting words, words that orient us in an intensely personal way about this funeral. It is the image of the Shepherd of the Archdiocese bringing his beloved dead to the Shepherd of Paradise.

Significant Pastoral Themes

The parish is the best possible setting for helping bereaved families acquire a sense of meaning regarding the death of a loved one. Pastoral care possesses scriptural concepts which relate to grief. When we see Scripture and pastoral psychology complementing each other, our funeral homilies will be very effective.

Preparing the funeral homily differs from all other homilies. Keeping in mind some insights from crisis ministry can be helpful. Some of the ways to intervene and assist the bereaved are to help people gain an understanding of crisis; to assist them in accepting the reality; to help them to explore ways to cope; and to assist them in finding meaning in life.

Pastoral themes need to be grounded in Scripture. The Word expresses and heals at critical times. Some themes which relate to the needs of the bereaved are:

1. The Metaphor of Journey. We are journeying with the others as companions in faith all the days of our lives. The funeral is the end of the journey on earth and a time for praying for entrance into the fulfillment of the journey in eternal life. The homilist may well note that how the deceased Christian’s journey began in baptism.

As an infant (or as an adult who entered the Church through the RCIA), the loved one was carried into the Church surrounded by family and friends. Now, once again, the present family and friends are carrying their dear one into the parish Church. This homily may well cite how the symbols recall the this baptismal journey.

The holy water recalls the waters of baptism, the funeral pall recalls the white baptismal garment and, certainly, the Paschal candle symbolizes hope in the resurrection, just as we keep our candles burning brightly throughout our earthly sojourn.

2. The Consoling Covenant Community. The covenant illustrates how Christians bond with one another. Again, as we recall the devastation and loss so many thousands of miles from us in Haiti and in other parts of the world, we realize that those who died are our brothers and sisters in the covenant. Death is the severing of a bond or an affectional tie.

The funeral is the time to begin reestablishing a new covenant relationship with those who have gone before us in faith. Catholic theology complements covenant very effectively through our belief in our bond with the Communion of Saints. With the theme of being bonded together in the New Covenant, we open up the way to develop better ways of appreciating our connectedness through our shared spiritual bond.

In light of crisis theories, there are certain realities which the homilist ought to keep in mind. Some of the following insights for our congregations may be helpful.

1. Do not use euphemisms for death. Rather, help the bereaved to be oriented to the loss. Initially, there is a numbness and even some disorientation when we face death. This illustrates the shock of experiencing loss. Avoidance and denial only complicate the grieving process. When we preach about loss, we need to be very direct in a loving, compassionate way.

2. Reinforce that life will change for both the deceased and those who are grieving. This phrase from the Preface of the Order of Christian Funerals, “Life is not taken away, it changes,” puts everything into focus. Individual deaths, just as with catastrophes, are times when the community laments.

3. Proclaim ways for people to cope. This is a creative venture, as many of thoughts and feelings need to be explored. We see this when people do things to help the suffering heal from loss. We see this expressed by the outpouring of help to other following natural catastrophes. This outpouring helps not only those in need, but also parishioners who need to find ways to give of themselves and what they have.

4. We constantly need to reinforce the importance of ritual and prayers during critical times. Our hope is in the name of the name of the Lord. Our laments are joined with those who are lamenting intense losses. This is empathic, unselfish prayer.

The funeral liturgy and, especially, the delivering of the homily are vital for imparting ways to sort out the chaos of grief. Real meaning and hope are conveyed when we emphasize that life is eternal. In our faith journey, we all cry out for meaning and hope when tragedies strike. Our only consolation is to trust that God in His love for us embraces our loved ones in death. While we may not understand what is happening, we can receive the peace of our loving God which is beyond understanding.

May the peace of God, which is beyond understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the love of God and his Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen (Order of Christian Funerals, No. 233).

FATHER CURLEY, who has long been active in grief ministry, is the author of numerous books and articles on separation and loss, including Planning the Catholic Funeral (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2005). He teaches pastoral studies as a faculty member for St. John Seminary, Brighton, Mass.