While I have written in the past about funerals, as customs seem to be changing regarding funerals, I would like to offer some understanding of what funerals are about and how we do them in our Catholic faith.
Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us, “There is an appointed time for everything…a time to be born and a time to die.” When one’s time to die comes, it leads to a “time to be mourn”. As part of the mourning (grieving) process, every culture normally has customs designed to help us deal with our grief. Often, one’s faith is involved in the grieving customs.
As Catholics, we have formal rituals designed for our grieving. Many might think this only involves the Mass in church and the prayers at the cemetery. The official Catholic ritual also recognizes the calling hours as a formal part of the customs. This is because coming together to remember our loved ones to share memories and to offer the family comfort is an important part of our faith. Burying the dead is part of the Corporal Works of Mercy as we read in Sirach 38:16, “My son, shed tears for one who is dead with wailing and bitter lament; as is only proper, prepare the body, and do not absent yourself from the burial” (cf. Tobit 1:16-18) as well as the Spiritual Work of Mercy to pray for the living and the dead. We pray for God’s consolation for the family and for our deceased loved one.
The Church also sees importance in gathering after the funeral Mass and burial for a reception to come together. Now, often receptions are in restaurants but some churches host receptions for the family.
Now, I want to speak about the funeral Mass itself. Many denominations will offer a prayer service at the funeral home or a simple graveside service. While those are options in the Catholic Church, it is not the tradition or the preference. We are called to gather in church for, not just a service, but a funeral Mass. In the Mass we celebrate the Sacrifice of Jesus giving his life for us on the Cross so that our sins can be forgiven so we can share in the Resurrection. We offer the funeral Mass for our loved one to be welcomed into Heaven. We are praying for their time in Purgatory to be swift. This follows our Catholic custom of offering Mass intentions. The Mass intention at a funeral is for our loved one whose funeral we celebrate.
A funeral Mass includes specific prayers written for funerals. It also includes readings from the Bible. I emphasis “from the Bible” because we use Bible passages that help us find hope in Jesus’ promise of Resurrection for all who believe in him “as the way and the life and the truth.” Sometimes families want to use a poem instead of Bible readings. Poems can help console us. They can be shared on prayer cards, at the funeral home, and/or reception but in Church we use Bible readings to focus on the hope our faith offers us during our “time to mourn.”
The homily should focus on our faith but to do so in a way that also reminds us of our deceased loved one as our loved one and a child of God.
Following the same reason as for Bible readings at a funeral Mass, we sing Catholic hymns at a funeral Mass. There are some very good secular songs out there that might help console us in our grief. Yet, they are not written for a funeral Mass. Often, they do not speak of faith. They do not speak of the hope that we have in Jesus. That doesn’t mean they are bad songs. They just aren’t written for the setting we have at a funeral Mass where we focus on Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Finally, a few words about “Words of Remembrance”, often referred to as a “eulogy.” I have some people who try to tell the whole life story of their deceased loved one. That is not the intent in church for “Words of Remembrance.”
“Words of Remembrance” highlight key aspects of a person’s life. They may share a short story from the person’s life that can be understand by all. Think about who is normally at a funeral Mass. There are two categories of people there. The first is family or friends who already know the person, so they don’t need to hear the whole story because they already know it. The second category is people who don’t know the deceased but come to offer comfort and support for the family. They may enjoy hearing a short story about the person that they can relate to but aren’t looking for the whole story.
If you would like people to share more of the story or to allow people to offer spontaneous thoughts about the deceased, the reception can be a wonderful place to do this depending on the setting. I have seen it done at a couple of funeral receptions where it was wonderful.
So, in one sentence, the funeral Mass is offered for the soul of the deceased and to remind us of the hope we have in eternal life through Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection.