It’s been quite some time since I’ve had room in the Bulletin to include a ti morceau. We’ve been considering the topic of death, and now move on to consider the way we in the Catholic Church deal with death in ritual. In other words, we will discuss our funeral liturgies.
I suppose the first thing that needs to be mentioned is how “culturally conditioned” human funeral rituals are. In some cultures funeral rituals are very stylized, that is, they always take place according to a particular and invariable manner of acting. In our country, at the beginning of the 21st century, funeral rituals tend to be much more flexible and creative. The death of someone in small-town middle-America is observed quite differently from the passing of a Hollywood celebrity, for instance, although particular ethnic groups may well often still preserve their preferred way of doing things. Often religious rituals – or their omission! -- provide either a sense of continuity within family or traditional culture, or are the very things that express uniqueness! And of course the circumstances of the death often condition the type of funeral which is held: a sudden or tragic death, especially of a young person is celebrated in a far, far different manner than that of an elderly person’s passing after a long and fruitful life.
As a parish priest, one of the first things I always have to inquire about and consider is the unique way in which the individual family itself deals with death in its midst. So many people in this day and age “live for the moment” that the finality of death is something they have a great deal of trouble coping with. Yet death is something that we all face, and in fact many families accept and cope with a loved one’s dying in very practical and indeed edifying ways.
It’s no surprise that our Church’s funeral rituals now encompass a great deal of flexibility in providing for a proper expression of familial grief, opportunity for prayer and final respects to the dearly departed, and a correct experience of theological truth regarding death and dying. Whereas once upon a time Catholic rituals were very “Eurocentric,” that is, expressive of the values and customs of Western Europe, with her missionary expansion into Asia and Africa and Latin America, our liturgical life now includes the differences of culture experienced there. In much of Asia and the Far East, for example, burial of human remains is exceedingly rare, and cremation is common; cremation is just beginning to be a common alternative in our part of the USA. Both burial and cremation are quite acceptable to the Church in almost every situation, and the prayers we use can reflect either reality. Similarly, our funeral ritual provides opportunities for shared prayer and reflection not only at the Funeral Mass, but also in all sorts of vigil services, prayer services, committal services, and blessings. While there is something of a “classic” progression of funeral services (and that’s what we’ll begin to discuss in the next morceau), within it can be found the perfect funeral for everybody and everybody’s family!