Arranging for a Funeral
By Fr Joe Babendreier
Your loved one has just died and you want to make arrangements for a funeral. The priest you talk to at church will understand your suffering. He may have heard the news already and he is expecting you to approach him about the funeral.
Occasionally, the priest is not expecting you. Maybe it was a sudden death in the family. Maybe the priest has just been transferred and has not had enough time to get to know all the people in his new parish. Usually, in situations like these, you talk with the priest and set a date for the funeral.
What if your request for a funeral turns out to be less than routine? What if the priest seems to have some objection or difficulty? The main purpose of this article is to explain what those difficulties might be so that you know what to expect.
Having a Christian funeral in church makes sense only for a deceased Christian. As the Catechism explains, the Church thinks of every funeral as a personal Passover, that is, the day when a Christian begins a journey similar to the one the People of God made leaving Egypt to enter the Holy Land.
A funeral is celebrated for a Christian who, in some way or another, believed what we say in the Creed every Sunday when we attend Mass: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and life in the world to come.”
A deceased child may have been too young to say such words. But being baptised in the faith of his or her parents, the child was living in the state of grace and will surely enter into heaven to live with God forever.
Anticipation of eternal life is one of the main reasons for having a funeral. On such occasions, the Church reminds everyone still alive that “life has changed not ended”. This is the message of every funeral: prepare yourself now—those of you who are still alive—to leave this world and spend your eternity seeing God face to face. There you will also see the loved one that you can no longer see in this world.
A funeral is a sacred act. It is liturgy—an act of coming together to worship God as God wants us to worship him. Like all liturgy, a funeral is necessarily directed towards the most sacred of all acts, the celebration of the Eucharist. Ideally, a funeral is celebrated during Mass. During every Mass, the priest holds the sacred Host above the altar and says: “Behold the Lamb of God…” With those words and the words of your response, the Church reminds us that Eucharist in this world prepares us for the eternal wedding feast in heaven.
A funeral that takes place within Mass is a sacred act of the Catholic Church. That’s why a Catholic priest can celebrate a funeral only for someone who was living in communion with the Catholic Church.
Once you understand these teachings of the Church about death and eternal life, it’s easier to understand why at times the priest has to examine each case. If the Church ever refuses—if a particular priest in a particular parish ever refuses—to hold a funeral for someone, it’s because of the sacred nature of a Christian funeral.
What the priest has to determine comes down to this. Was the deceased person practicing his or her faith? The first thing he looks at is the deceased person’s understanding of the Eucharist. One of the prayers for a funeral Mass has the priest say the following words, referring to the deceased: “Lord God, whose Son left us food for the journey in the Sacrament of his Body, mercifully grant that, strengthened by it [the Eucharist], our brother (our sister) may come to the eternal table of Christ.”
If a deceased man, despite regularly attending a Catholic church every Sunday, had been living with two wives, the priest will have to politely inform the family that they cannot have a funeral Mass in the church. This does not mean that we judge the man. Only God can judge. In such a case, the priest could show up at the gravesite to say the final prayers before burial. But he would not celebrate a funeral Mass.
This is because of a pubic feature of the man’s life and the fact that he made no effort to change it even as he was getting ready to die. His life stands in contradiction to God’s plan for marriage. The Eucharist symbolises the union of Christ the Bridegroom with his Bride the Church. How can a priest celebrate the Eucharist for a man who, at least in practice, rejected the ideal of the Eucharist, which is the same as the ideal of marriage, one man united to one woman?
Another instance of difficulty occurs with a Christian who stopped going to Mass at a Catholic church and started attending services in a Protestant community, where, by definition, that Christian will never be able to receive the Eucharist. Again, how can a priest celebrate the Eucharist for someone who, at least in practice, did not give the Eucharist any importance in his or her own spiritual life?
Even in these difficult situations, remember that the priest will pray for the deceased person and pray sincerely, asking God for mercy.
Other Special Circumstances
The Church will allow a full Christian funeral for someone who is known to have committed suicide, as long as the deceased was known to be a practicing Catholic before the tragic ending. This is due to our medical understanding of suicide. There is no question whatsoever that suicide is seriously evil and that the Church can never condone such an evil. However, a person committing suicide is usually not acting rationally, caught in the grip of a deadly depression. In the Church’s judgement, the person was acting without full awareness and without full consent.
Similarly, take the case of a Christian who was publicly known to be living in contradiction with Christian faith—for instance, a man living with a mistress after abandoning his wife. If that man were to repent and make his repentance known publicly, after going to confession and receiving Anointing of the Sick, the Church can celebrate a proper funeral Mass.
The Church looks first and foremost for a sign of repentance. Jesus insisted: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I did not come to call the virtuous but sinners” (Mt 9:13).
To summarise these teachings, we can turn once again to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “When the celebration [of a funeral] takes place in church, the Eucharist is the heart of the Paschal reality of Christian death. In the Eucharist, the Church expresses her efficacious communion with the departed: offering to the Father in the Holy Spirit the sacrifice of the death and resurrection of Christ, she asks to purify his child of his sins and their consequences, and to admit him to the Paschal fullness of the table of the Kingdom. It is by the Eucharist thus celebrated that the community of the faithful, especially the family of the deceased, learn to live in communion with the one who ‘has fallen asleep in the Lord,’ by communicating in the Body of Christ of which he is a living member and, then, by praying for him and with him” (CCC, n.1689).
Fr Joe is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei. He is currently a director of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross.