We’ve begun consideration of our Church’s funeral liturgies in these morceaux. As we saw last week, liturgical norms are very flexible, allowing for a great deal of personalization and adjustment to each family’s and community’s situation on the occasion of someone’s death.
And yes, as the old adage goes, “Funerals are for the living.” True, our prayers for God’s mercy toward the deceased person (known as “suffrages,” if you’d like to use a pretty obscure word for those intercessions to God on their behalf!) do benefit them, since God always hears our unselfish prayers. But far more importantly, funeral rituals permit those who remain alive to accomplish a number of things.
First, funerals allow us to express our grief in formal, even stylized ways. While uncontrolled weeping and expressive anguish may well be an appropriate psychological response in the face of death – and often in fact is a sign of emotional health, to tell the truth – our Catholic worship channels these feelings to include other elements and so help us to move beyond the moments of sadness to a posture of hope.
What are some of these elements? Remembrance of the deceased person is certainly one, but the principal points of focus are on Christ and how He transformed death. Due to Jesus’ own passion-death-and-resurrection, death for those who embrace faith in Him no longer means eternal hopelessness. Rather, Christ’s giving up of Himself in order to give us a chance at everlasting happiness means that death is now a gateway unto eternal life. This is known as the Paschal Mystery, and there is no more practical Catholic dogma in all the Catechism!
This is why, ideally, we celebrate a Funeral Mass: in so doing we remember and offer Christ’s own Holy Sacrifice again to God the Father, in particular that His atoning merits may benefit the one who has died. This is why we stress baptismal connections between the believer and the Savior – a burning Easter Candle, a covering white garment, a washing again with holy water, etc. – confident that “we who were indeed buried with Him through baptism into death … shall also be united with Him in the resurrection” (Romans 6:4-5). And in sharing in Holy Communion we express our oneness in faith with Christ Jesus, with one another, and even with those who have gone before us and now share in the heavenly banquet: the “communion of saints” of which the Apostles’ Creed speaks.
A lot goes on at funerals … almost all of which benefits “we who remain alive,” so that we might be reunited with the faithful departed and together “always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17).