A funeral in our church is a very important and special occasion. Yes of course it is also a sad occasion, sometimes painfully so. It is an opportunity for us, as a faith community, to step in beside those who are in grief, sometimes plunged suddenly into this awful experience, and attempt to walk beside them in prayerful solidarity. For us here in St. Matthews from the initial point of contact from the undertaker there are three distinct stages regarding the final saying goodbye to our loved ones: the preparation, the funeral itself, and contact between the bereaved family and the parish afterwards.
The preparation period takes place in the parish centre as opposed to the family home as the latter can prove busy whereas the centre allows us to have an hour, or an hour and a half uninterrupted quality time. Ideally three or four people attend representing the family and the discussion is primarily about the loved one who has died. This is key to how the funeral will be celebrated. The areas of the person’s life discussed will include: place of birth, family life, place of work, hobbies, interests, travel, music, television, music, pets, key characteristics, personality, spirituality and faith.
Whilst this sounds very comprehensive the funeral mass is not an opportunity to give a blow by blow account of the person’s life. Rather I will try to reflect a little on the person’s life through the lens of the gospel, at all time’s mindful that the beauty of the Catholic funeral liturgy is rooted in God’s mercy and the hope of eternal life. The tenor of course is the honour and dignity of the person, the comfort of the broken-hearted within a respectful celebration of the greatest prayer on earth, namely the Mass. This preparation period will also include a discussion of how family might be involved, through the readings, prayers and bringing up the gifts. It is important to say that there are only two ‘gifts’ at Mass namely the bread and wine that through the power of the Holy Spirit become Christ present amongst us. The necessary gifts are sometimes confused with the unnecessary symbols.
It might be helpful to address two areas of potential conflict: what has become known as ‘symbols’ and a family member or friend speaking. I try to discourage both, though I hasten to add if the family feels strongly on either of these we usually find an acceptable compromise. I am opposed to the symbols because in my view they are often tacky, including the person’s teeth, alcohol, betting dockets, lotto tickets, cigarettes tobacco and so on. Whilst I firmly believe we do not need any of these symbols from time to time a family suggests something which is difficult to argue with, a gentleman’s guitar, a little cardigan or blanket the lady crocheted, or a collage of family photos. With regard to a family member speaking, again my concern is around how this is done. Most often a person thinks they will be able to do it, but in fact it quickly proves to much and they fall apart. Quite often the difficulty is more practical and they simply cannot be heard. In a very small number of instances the contribution is inappropriate. Most of us would surely agree that bad language and sexual innuendo has no place in God’s house.
This preparation is completed with a family member phoning me the night before the funeral with the names of those taking part in the ceremony. Sr Anne Marie, our Parish Sister, or another member of our funeral team, is available to lead short prayers with the family the evening before. At this point I have spent time on the notes, usually in the Park, corny as it may sound, walking with the deceased person in my heart. After the phone call with the names I spend a period of prayer asking the Holy Spirit to help me celebrate the funeral Mass worthily.
Whilst the music for the Mass is of course religious there is scope for one secular or non religious song at the end. This is almost like an anthem for the person as we leave the Church. It is highly preferable that this is sung live by the singer as opposed to a pre-recorded version.
Where possible a priest or another member of the funeral team will conduct a short prayer at the graveside or in the crematorium. This is a relaxed place for non religious music and a family member speaking. Families are welcome to organise a months mind Mass and will be invited to attend our special Mass for the Dead in November. Throughout the year here in St. Matthew’s we pray for the eternal rest of our beloved dead and the comfort of those in grief.