In considering funerals in the Church we can note not only how we Catholic believers understand death but also the best ways to act in the face of death.
Many seminarians and deacon-candidates are surprised when they start to study the Church’s funeral rites as part of their ministerial preparation. Funeral rituals are much more broad than they usually think, and are part of a carefully-constructed whole series of worship-services and prayer-moments.
The easiest way to notice this is to look at the “typical” beginning and ending of Catholic liturgy: the “sign of the cross” at the beginning and the “final blessing” of the assembly at the end. We’re all familiar with this at Mass, at weddings, and virtually every other ritual we ever celebrate in common.
Yet if you take a careful, close look at the Order of Christian Funerals – the official liturgical ritual book of the Church – one of the first things you’ll notice is the 3-part basic structure of funerals: the period of visiting and prayer (often called the wake or vigil) at home or in some other suitable place, the funeral liturgy itself (usually Mass, if the deceased was a practicing Catholic) in church, and the “committal” ritual at the cemetery. And then you’ll notice that the first of these begins with the “sign of the cross,” but that there is no “final blessing” of the congregation until the end of the last part! All of these moments of fellowship, worship and prayer form part of a unified whole.
It’s a simple way to emphasize an important reality: our prayer for the deceased and support of the family are not limited just to worship in church, or to a particular time just after death. Death is such a profound change – not only for the dearly departed but indeed for the family and entire community – that the Church deliberately broadens her perspectives to begin prayerful and supportive time well before and also after the “official” funeral. The best experience or encounter with death in faith is a full one, and includes significant moments of shared grief and remembrance with family AND formal funeral rites in church AND those last moments of shared farewell at the graveside or mausoleum.
Honestly, for most of us in the busy world in which we live, we probably don’t give enough time and attention to the subject of death, and to our Christian responsibility to share condolences and the strength of God with surviving family members and friends who feel the loss of a loved one most acutely. Thus I do suggest “broadening” out our witness of faith even beyond the official rituals of the Church even to include memorial Masses, “month’s mind” Masses and prayers, thoughtful notes of condolence well after the rituals have ended, etc. In matters of prayer and support in the face of death, less is not more: only more is more!