The business of death

jerome2Considering its ubiquity, death has to be one of the most under-reported aspects of the religion beat. Dying, death and funerals are major topics in the life of every pastor — but usually they only get covered when they happen to someone famous.

So I was glad that Louisville Courier-Journal religion reporter Pete Smith was able to discuss the topic of funerals. His hook is amazing:

A Nelson County funeral home director is suing the Archdiocese of Louisville and a Roman Catholic priest, whom he accuses of undercutting his business by implementing new rules on conducting funerals at his parish.

The Rev. Jeffrey Leger, pastor of St. Catherine Church in New Haven, put a new policy into effect last month, stipulating that funeral directors can no longer solely plan funerals. Instead, they must now plan them with Leger, who has final say.

It’s the dirty little secret of church life that some funeral directors are responsible for exerting a great deal of power over funeral services. Sometimes that’s a net blessing for the parties involved. Grieving family members don’t always make the best decisions about funerals. But for churches, such as mine, that approach funerals as worship services in which the Word of God is proclaimed in order to comfort those who grieve with hope in the resurrected Christ — meddling from non-members can wreak havoc. I say all this as a descendant of successful funeral home directors on one side of the family and the daughter of a pastor on the other side of the family. I really like the way Smith just laid the facts out in order to quickly get into the meat of the story:

The new policy, which Leger outlined in a 10-page letter to funeral directors, strictly enforces church law and liturgical practices that limit such things as the types of readings, music and eulogies at funeral Masses.

Ron Rust, owner of the William R. Rust Funeral Home in New Haven, said the policy will interfere with his longstanding business of coordinating funerals that are held at St. Catherine.

Rust claims intentional and wrongful interferences and seeks a temporary injunction halting implementation of the policy pending his lawsuit seeking damages. He claims a right to direct funerals without constraints. One thing I liked about Smith’s story is that he quoted Leger’s theological defense before he got into the specifics of what is forbidden:

In his letter to funeral homes, he said the purpose of a funeral Mass is to “illumine the mystery of Christian death in light of the risen Christ,” and that everything must focus on the Christian hope of resurrection.

Anything that could distract from that should be avoided, he wrote, adding that eulogies, recorded music and nonbiblical readings such as poetry and letters are forbidden except under limited circumstances.

Such personalized features should take place at the vigil service, typically held the evening before the Mass at either the church or the funeral home, he said.

Smith also checked with the Archdiocese of Louisville to see if Leger was in accordance with church teaching. They said he was. The article explains other aspects of the funeral policy, permitting Leger’s letter to speak for itself. It’s so nice to have the column inches required to explain some of the theology underpinning Christian burial. Others picked up on the story, but didn’t give nearly enough space.

Art is Bastiani’s Funeral of St. Jerome, via the World Gallery of Art.

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  • FW Ken

    What financial harm does the church policy cause? Does the funeral director get paid more if a family has a funeral at a particular parish or congregation? Does he charge extra for pre-recorded music or poems? Wouldn’t he make extra charging for using his chapel if the family doesn’t want to have service at the Church? Or maybe he makes more for funerals in parish churches?

    In short, I don’t get it.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    In reading this piece, I have to wonder what’s going on in Louisville. My experience in Wisconsin is that pastors/priests and funeral directors know they have a professional, working relationship and that each has a role. Most funeral directors I know bend over backwards to allow the clergy to perform the spiritual aspects. I have actually been interviewed by several funeral homes for mortician positions because they know someone with that background usually has the mental ability to perform the activities of the job as well as the sensitivity to acede to the clergy the spiritual care.

    Is the problem perhaps with the funeral home chain(s)? Obviously someone happened/is happening for the pastor to issue his plea. As my seminary church history professor would say, “One does not write a rule that says ‘Don’t hit the priest’ unless someone is hitting priests.”

  • Brian L

    Funerals in Louisville are almost completely divorced from the church – the national chain funeral home industry is very strong there. Often the pastor is the last to be consulted. I’m glad someone with the clout to affect change is taking a stand.

  • Mattk

    Brian L: “national chain funeral home industry”… I had no idea such a thing existed. I am shocked and appalled.

    FW Ken: Good questions. I wish they had been answered in the story.

    Mollie: I also enjoyed the theological emphasis of the article. And, like your church, mine pretty much relegates the funeral director to driving the hearse. Here is a good article on the Orthodox funerary practice:

  • Joseph M. Smith

    How many times I have worked with a family to prepare a service that accords with our view of worship and incorporates a sense of propriety and a consistent emotional trajectory, only to have the printed program be nothing more than the funeral home’s template service! Maybe pastors should offer seminars for funeral directors on the requirements or the expectations of the churches for genuine worship rather than a format that is essentially: Psalm 23, John 14, tributes, eulogy, over and out.

  • Rod

    Shocked and appalled doesn’t quite cover it for me. The presumption of a mere funeral home director dictating to a priest in his own church how the funeral is to be conducted is nothing short of blasphemy.

    When my mother died, all arrangements for the funeral were done through the church. The funeral director (who was WONDERFUL) was there just to make sure the casket got to be where it needed to be and the flowers were arranged decently. Of course, he was a local and he was a friend and his other services went way beyond what a funeral franchise would do.

  • Claude

    Like FW Ken, I don’t get it. I can’t fathom how a funeral home director thinks he can tell a Church how to conduct a funeral *in* the Church. I think the author of the article should have explained what legal basis the funeral home director was suing. As reported here, it sounds more like a nuisance suit than a serious one.

  • Michael Stevens

    And a key part of a Catholic funeral should also be the prayers for the remission of the sins of the deceased.

    To mention that the (we hope) much-loved departed was also a sinner in need of God’s grace is not in tune with much of the present “Let’s celebrate their life” style of funeral that seems so common now.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It used to be there was no problem because the local undertaker was very much involved (at least around here north of Boston) in the spiritual and sacramental life of the church where most of his funeral home’s business would come from. But the number of funeral homes has shrunk greatly combined with the arrival of big funeral home chains and funeral homes now seem to be “all-purpose” funeral homes instead of being primarily identified with the Polish Catholic community, or the Italian Catholic community, or the Protestant community or the Jewish community, etc.
    Consequently many undertakers heve only a passing acquaintance with the various differences in the funerals expected by different faiths (or none). So maybe it is time for religioous leaders of various faiths to assert more control of funerals that are taking place under the auspices of their religion.
    This should be a great area for some good print or TV news stories. Actually, some undertakers have so much taken over how things are handled that there have been a number of scandals locally involving the proper disposal of bodies after the funeral. This turned out to be easy because in most places no longer does the family stay around until the last pile of dirt is shoveled and the funeral home usually spirits away the clergy from graveside even quicker than the family is whisked away. (The chains got to get the cars and hearse back quickly for the next funeral in line).

  • Robin Richter

    I have a lot of respect for both the church and for funeral directors, as well as the folks that work in the funeral industry. It’s a tough job and most people do not even want to discuss death, let alone deal with it as a profession. (Funeral directors work in one of the “unknown” industries, where laypeople have no clue how much or what type of work is involved – and it is a regulated profession.) The majority of funeral directors are caring, honest and gentle people that do their jobs, yes to be profitable, but they don’t attack people or institutions in order to be.

    I don’t know how Mr. Rust and his attorney believe this will have a positive outcome. He is likely already losing grieving families because they do not want to deal with companies involved in litigation. They especially aren’t likely to at a time when they can barely think clearly and don’t care about much else than the fact that their life is in turmoil over the death of someone close. And do you want to tell anyone that your Uncle Fred is being cared for by a funeral home that is suing the church to make sure it gets more business?

    Tim Totten of Final Embrace discussed this in his blog today. As an expert in the funeral industry, Mr. Totten frequently advises on the ways that funeral homes can push families away and has generated many beneficial discussions among funeral directors about how to work with the church, not against it. How can anyone, funeral home, church and more importantly, the family, benefit from not working together as a committed team, facing one of the most difficult and crucial times in a life? Isn’t one of the purposes of the church being involved is to give the family what they want and need? Mr. Rust, that’s called GOOD customer service!

    Mr. Rust does not sound like the typical caring, honest and gentle person that directs funerals. He’s in the wrong profession. I doubt any priest, minister or preacher will want to work with his funeral home again and certainly won’t recommend him to their congregations.

    Good idea.

  • Larry Leger

    Archdiocese releases statement on lawsuit

  • Larry Leger

    Archdiocese releases statement on lawsuit


    In response to a lawsuit filed by Rust Funeral Home against the Rev. Jeffrey Leger and the Archdiocese of Louisville, the Archdiocese released the following statement to St. Catherine of Alexandria, New Haven, parishioners:
    “You may have seen press stories about the lawsuit filed by Rust Funeral Home against Father Leger, St. Catherine Parish, and the Archdiocese. It is unfortunate that these conflicts become the topic for debate in the public media.
    “Archdiocesan attorneys are responding to this lawsuit. In the meantime, I want to assure you that the funeral policies distributed by Father Leger deal primarily with liturgical norms that apply to any Catholic Mass. They are consistent with Church law and pastoral practice throughout the Church.
    “Let us all pray for a speedy resolution to this unfortunate misunderstanding.”
    The statement was signed by the Most Rev. Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D., Archbishop of Louisville.
    Ron Rust with William R. Rust Funeral Home filed the lawsuit, seeking an injunction against certain aspects of a funeral policy Leger wrote for St. Catherine.
    Rust Funeral Home and St. Catherine Church are in New Haven, and Rust often conducts funerals at the church for St. Catherine parishioners. He believes that unless an injunction is issued to keep Leger from enforcing the policy against his business, he will lose funerals and related income.
    At issue are restrictions Rust claims Leger placed on the funeral Mass concerning Biblical readings, who can provide music, which songs can be played or sang, the presentation of tributes and eulogies, who can act as pastor and deacon, which church can be used and who qualifies to receive Catholic funeral rites. Rust also claims that Leger has placed restrictions on when and where funeral services can be conducted, and that Leger requires all funeral Masses to be planned by him instead of the funeral director.
    The lawsuit states Leger put the policies into effect without approval of the Archdiocese of Louisville. The Archdiocese is included in the lawsuit, however, because Rust claims that concerns expressed about Leger’s funeral policy were ignored, implying approval of the policy.
    Rust referred questions about the lawsuit to his attorney, Larry Raikes with Fulton, Hubbard & Hubbard. Raikes declined to comment beyond what he set forth in the lawsuit, which includes:
    • Rust’s rights will be violated by Leger’s enforcement of the policy and Rust will suffer immediate and irreparable loss and damage pending a final judgment in the matter.
    • A temporary and/or permanent injunction would not harm the public, but would maintain the status quo.
    • Rust has the right to direct funerals according to the wishes of the deceased’s family without the constraints of Leger’s policy.
    • No harm would befall Leger or the Archdiocese of Louisville if an injunction is issued.
    • Rust is entitled to compensatory damages for lost income, foreseeable emotional distress or harm to his reputation, plus punitive damages.
    In a previous interview, Leger said it is common for individual Catholic churches to have funeral policies in place. On Tuesday, he said the policies must be upheld.
    “The policies are put in place for church law and therefore have to be defended, by virtue of the church’s right within her own boundaries and confines to govern herself,” he said.
    Leger said the lawsuit is stressful for the parishioners, but they are being “generous and merciful.”
    “The parishioners are very supportive and very understanding of the situation, even though it’s not fun to have it because everybody comments and ask them questions,” he said.

    Stephanie Hornback can be reached at 348-9003, Ext. 130, or

    Source: The Kentucky Standard