My grandmother died just after my 11th birthday. My mother was hanging up the phone as I came into the kitchen, tears in her eyes, and said, “Pray for poor Grandma’s soul.” I did.
My 6-year-old little brother and I did not attend the afternoon and evening wakes that followed. Nor did we attend the funeral Mass, as I remember. My older brother came home from the funeral home the first night of the wake to tell me that there were people in the room next to grandma that were shrieking and crying.
My mother explained to us that they were “keeners,” professionals hired to wail or cry at wakes, a still-common Irish-American custom at mid-century past. Maybe that’s why she kept us home.
Then she told the stories as she always did. In her childhood, every home had the “parlor room” that existed supposedly for guests, but really to host family funerals. Though funerals were even then a growing business as they had been since the Civil War, much of her early 20th-century childhood had lingered in what she called the “Olden Days.”
The bodies of the deceased — infants or elderly — were sacred and prepared for showing by the women of the family rather than outsiders, she said. Death was a frequent and sudden visitor, but never hidden, instead mourned through sacrament and faith at home and church.
My mother recalled a cousin she played with on Tuesday laid out in the parlor on Saturday during the Spanish flu of 1918. And of the ice surrounding the coffin of an old man in summer, and the neighbors chipping off slivers to cool their drinks. It was a catechesis of experience, teaching a confident hope in eternal life.
Writing a few months back in the Pittsburgh Catholic, Bishop David A. Zubik noted the worrisome statistics. Church marriages and baptisms drying up, Mass attendance plummeting, parish enrollment halved in less than a few decades.
There are all the usual reasons of cultural change and pressures, demographic implosions, social norms gone. But Bishop Zubik remembered that a decade or two back pastors “began to note that many adult children of parishioners were no longer having a funeral Mass at the parish when their parents died. Lifelong parishioners, some daily communicants and in so many ways the backbone of the parish, were being given by their family brief funeral service and interment.”
Back then, dioceses would compare baptism statistics to funerals and it was good news if the babies came out on top. But maybe they had it wrong to see where things were actually going. Perhaps it wasn’t in the marriages and school enrollment where it all started going south. The first hint might have been with vanishing funeral Masses.
“I remember one pastor shaking his head back then,” Bishop Zubik wrote, “as he told the story of one of his parishioners who had died, a widower who had been an usher for decades. His adult kids — baby boomers of my generation — described themselves to the pastor as ‘semi-practicing’ Catholics who no longer lived in town. They just wanted something where a few prayers would be said. A funeral Mass would be just too much.”
“A funeral Mass is a gift,” Bishop Zubik concluded, “a statement of our faith in life everlasting, a community celebration of the faith lived. If we forget that we risk forgetting who we are.” And what we believe. Maybe when we began to lose the meaning of life and death, we began to lose as well an understanding of Resurrection. As St. Paul taught us, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.