The rite done right: making a funeral easier for everyone

The rite done right: making a funeral easier for everyone February 18, 2011

It’s a recurring problem at some Catholic liturgies — notably, weddings and funerals — where a sizable number of those in attendance may not be church-going Catholics.

How do you handle the blank stares and stony silences?

(And the silence can be deafening, and dispiriting.  I’ve presided at a couple of weddings where, after I’ve said, “The Lord be with you” … nobody uttered a word.)

Well, they handled things very deftly at my aunt’s funeral on Wednesday, at St. Anthony’s parish in Hamilton, NJ.  Before mass began, a woman came forward from the sanctuary and welcomed everyone.  She essentially became the MC for the event.  She directed people to stand and greet the casket; later, she announced who would do the readings, and then ushered them to the ambo and then back to their pew.  When announcing the hymns, the leader of song gently encouraged people to stand, sit or kneel — and she offered a brief reminder at communion time about who was welcome to receive the Eucharist.

The whole event proceeded effortlessly and tastefully from moment to moment, and I couldn’t help but be grateful.  Funerals can be overwhelming and confusing.  The emotions of the moment can often cloud our thinking.  But the good people at St. Anthony’s helped do the thinking for us.  I liked that.

At my parish, the pastoral care administrator helps facilitate some of the these things, but it’s not nearly as coordinated.  I got the distinct impression that this is a ministry — a couple of elderly gentlemen assisted by serving the mass and helping the priest with the incense — and it’s one that I think would be welcome in most parishes.  (When my mother died in the early ’90s, a group of retired men called “The Arimathians” helped arrange the readings and music for us.)

I’m curious: how do they handle these things at your parish?

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20 responses to “The rite done right: making a funeral easier for everyone”

  1. I attended a funeral recently on Long Island that included a “Companion”. This lady acted pretty much as the one you mention. Everything went very smoothly.

    The fact that the “companion” was noted on the “worship aid” right after the priest’s name raised some questions before Mass began. My wife said “I thought this was Catholic Church”.

  2. We have a consolation ministry, whose members attend every funeral at our parish. They first meet with the family & do funeral liturgy planning. They attend the vigil service & Mass & assist as needed. They supply Eucharistic Ministers as needed.
    We do not have an “emcee”, per se, as you describe, but I think this would be a welcome addition in cases where there are significant number of non-Catholics at the Mass.
    As a deacon who has done a lot of graveside services & liturgies outside of Mass, I can really appreciate you comment about the deafening silence when no one knows the repsonses, especially at the graveside when I say “Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.”
    -Deacon Ken

  3. Once, a priest and I had just finished a funeral, and he said, “Whew! The only Catholics there were you, me, and the deceased. And she wasn’t helping much!”

  4. My diocese is in the heart of the Baptist Bible belt, so we get a lot of non-Catholics at funerals.
    To make things easier, we had pamphlets made up which is like a missalette. It contains all of the readings and prayers and parts of the Mass.

    The celebrant usually explains what is going on as the liturgy proceeds.

  5. For reasons I do not care to discuss here (lest it start a digressive argument). I have left for the Episcopal Church but still check this blog from time to time.

    At funerals, my parish hands out a bulletin with the congregation’s responses and with directions, such as when to stand, who can receive communion and how to obtain a blessing at the communion rail of you do not want to receive communion. (This bulletin is an adaptation of the usual bulletin that we use on Sunday because we do not use misallettes.)

  6. So glad to hear that you had a good experience at St. Ansthony’s. We’ve been encouraging pastors in our diocese to develop a “consolation ministry” in each parish that would provide leadership, hospitality, and a sensitivity to people from other faiths, and inactive Catholics who come to these “occasional” liturgies. I’ve been telling everybody, “Hospitality” is the main thing. Treat everybody as a “first-time guest.”

    Also, my good friend, Msgr. Tom Gervasio is the Pastor of that parish. We’ve also worked very hard with our Pastoral Musicians of our diocese to be extra-sensitive at these occasional liturgies.

  7. We don’t need an MC. Masses are silly enough as is; way too much like variety shows already. I sing in our funeral choir. Here’s composite of the kind of garbage we routinely put up with:

    “Hi I’m Fr. Jones. Fr. Smith couldn’t be here today. I’m from St John’s over in Elmville, and very happy to be here with you all this morning. I’d like to thank you for coming today and to welcome you all to his beautiful church here in Mapleville. I think we should give a big round of applause to our choir. They are magnificent. Ha Ha, If any of you want to defect and come over and sing with my choir… ha ha ha.” Everything but “You know , a funny thing happened to me on the way here this morning….” Oh, yes, er, That box over there… Oh, yeah. Funeral. Let’s get started.

    None of it, you see, is about the deceased whose soul we are there to pray or the repose of (not whose life we are there to celebrate, though even that would focus on the proper object), it’a all about the celebrant and everything else.

    As to resounding silences, Catholics used to know what to do without being told. Now we are told to stand, to sit, what to respond. Who has dummed us down to this extent, and why??

    Maybe that should be addressed, rather than inventing new foolishnesses.

    For the non-Catholics, a note (or rubrics) in the program should suffice.

  8. Stephen…

    None of what you described remotely resembles my experience at St. Anthony’s, which was tasteful and reverent.

    As for the silences: they exist because so few Catholics go to church regularly — if at all. It’s not dumbing-down. It’s just plain ignorance. Many people honestly don’t know what to do at a Catholic mass anymore. (And wait until the new missal translation lands, just in time for Christmas…oy…)

    Dcn. G.

  9. I’m a member of our parish’s “Bereavement Team”. For 15 years we’ve been the contact people for the families of deceased, visiting the family and assisting in the preparation of the funeral liturgy. We use Fr. Joseph Champlin’s book “Through Death to Life” as a guide.
    The families are so grateful that they are able to be a part of the planning, to select readings, hymns, readers and other participants, from placing the pall to bringing up the gifts. We also prepare a program booklet, a simple one page folded in half. It has been a beautiful experience. Sometimes decades old wounds are healed before your eyes.
    By the way, I kind of agree with the person who wants to get rid of eulogies. We have settled on a compromise. No longer than 5 minutes, must be BEFORE mass begins (thus preserving the liturgy) and a copy must be given to Father 24 hours before. This has help alot. Still, the occasional train wreck gets through.

  10. At our parish we have a devoted group of volunteers that make up the “Resurrection Choir.” Besides providing a core group of the faithful who can assist in the responses, they provide quality, reverent, appropriate music for the liturgy.

    I try not to be too hard on folks, particularly at funerals. In the midst of grieving even the most devout of Catholics have difficulty as to when to sit, stand, kneel, etc. With a little pastoral care and gentle guidance beforehand, for the most part I find that we avoid the circuses that I sometimes hear complaints about.

    At communion time I offer a simple instruction: “If you are not Roman Catholic, or for any other reason are not receiving Holy Communion today, I invite to you come forward and it would be my honor to give you a special blessing. Simple indicate so by crossing your arms over your chest.” I know that there are some purists out there that wince at the individual blessings but have found this to be a pastoral way to convey the Church’s discipline in a clear, yet gentle way, and have actually received some positive comments for non-Catholics.”

    Weddings, of course, can be a bit more challenging, but I at least try to go over a little church protocol at the rehearsal and do as above at communion time.

  11. I wonder if the “stony silences” you find so “dispiriting” have anything to do with your later comment that our emcee let people know “who was welcome to receive communion.” Have you considered that perhaps those sitting in stony silence are fed up with the exclusivity and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church?
    I converted to Catholicism more than 30 years ago, went to mass daily, got a master’s degree in religious education, taught religion in a catholic high school, got a doctorate in theology etc etc. I have watched with tremendous sadness as the church has become increasingly co-opted by the religious right. The firs major straw that broke it was when a bishop said he would not give John Kerry communion because he is pro-choice. The absolute final audacity that made me glad I decided to leave was when the nun was excommunicated for participating I bthe decision for a woman to have an abortion (to save her life). Were ANY of the hundreds (thousands?) of predator priests excommunicated?
    Stony silence? You betcha. With the anger, disappointment and horror is also tremendous sadness. I have thought a out how important it is to try to bring about change from within the church. No way. I am not going to spend my precious life and energy on a fruitless endeavor.
    So gather your ideas about how to lead and prod the ignorant sheep – that is what your bosses are trying to do. The only reason those people are there is to honor the deceased – quite frankly hey don’t give a damn whether they are sitting or standing at the right time – is that, after all, so important? Why not spend your energy on gathering ideas on how to make the moment as precious and comforting as possible for the bereaved. It is just another exame of how the priorities are all ridiculous.

  12. I must comment on the eulogy issue. How very interesting that the first commenter wants to get rid of them and the second describes a “compromise” for limiting and controlling them. Can you just take a minute to listen to yourselves? It is yet again an example of priorities gone awry – much more important to keep the focus on the sacrament and too bad about the person who died or the sorrowful seeking comfort. My bet is that for the people in the pews, the eulogy, however painfully delivered sometimes, is far more important than standing or sitting correctly or getting the responses right.
    The self righteousness of the “liturgy preservers” here would probably make Jesus weep.

  13. H…

    It might be helpful to gain a better understanding of the Catholic theology surrounding the funeral rite.

    The USCCB has a good overview from the catechism.

    You might not agree with it. But, even if you don’t, I’d humbly ask that you express your disagreement respectfully and with Christian charity. This blog is not intended to be a forum for Catholic bashing.

    Thank you.

    Dcn. G.

  14. My Dear Deacon Kandra –

    First I must tell you how much I look forward to reading your blog every day. We are very blessed at our parish to have a wonderful deacon in addition to our holy, humble pastor and another fine priest in residence. I think your parish must be equally blessed by your vocation.

    We do not have any specific, formal ministry in bereavement at our parish, but both priests and Deacon Ray are very conscientous about gently, discreetly giving cues to the congregation at both funerals and weddings, where we often count non-Catholics and non-observant Catholics among our guests.

    In spite of this, at a recent funeral I attended, the unforseen happened. The deceased was a lovely lady who was the mother of eight grown children. The children are not notably observant Catholics, but they do know how to attend Mass and were sitting together in the front pew. At Communion, with about half of the communicants still in line, one friend of the family received Communion and then turned to the front pew and individually hugged and spoke at length to each mourner. As you can imagine, this held up the rest of the line and created a bit of a scene at what is supposed to be a very holy point of the Mass. Our dear pastor, who was occupied with distributing, noticed the line was backed up and turned to see what the hold up was. Fortunately, the woman in question had finally gotten to the last daughter and returned to her pew.

    At that point, Father seemed to ask the remaining communicants individually if they were in fact Catholic before he offered the host.

    Perhaps this story explains to Mr. or Ms. Wilson above why we only offer Communion on our church to Catholics in a state of grace. It is not meant to be inhospitable or unkind. Anyone who receives Holy Communion in a Catholic church not only believes that the host and wine are indeed the body and blood of Our Lord, but also must believe in all the tenets of the Catholic church. It is also why we Catholics must not receive Communion at a church that is neither Catholic nor Orthodox. It is not a symbol – it is Our Lord Himself.

    Blessings from Akron

  15. HW, for someone who has a doctorate in theology you sound woefully uninformed on what the purpose of a funeral is. It is primarily to pray for the soul of the deceased. We ask forgiveness for their sins and pray they are received into heaven. It is also for the consolation of the bereaved family as is heard in the prayers.
    Eulogiesin the strict sense are not permitted. They tend to canonized the deceased and often add to the emotional stress already present. They more often than not say nothing in relation tothe person’s life of faith but simply ramble on about how much grandma loved to cook meatballs. These eulogies are better delivered at the wake or a funeral luncheon.
    As for “who is welcome to Communion” should non-Catholics and non practicing Catholics march up the Communion line too? Absurd.

  16. I have been to Roman church funerals and weddings. I am an Episcopalian. The Roman liturgy is almost identical to ours so following it and participating is no problem for me. I DO receive communion. I don’t respect the Roman church views on this because I regard as reprehensible any notion that the Body and Blood of Jesus are anyone’s private property. Jesus gave his life to ALL of us, no matter where we are in our journey of faith. As an Episcopalian, I tune in to my conscience and tune out the Pope.

  17. David who are you to determine Catholic discipline? Your reception of Communion is not only reprehensible disrespect but shows a lack of understanding of Communon as a bond of unity in faith. That bond does not exist. What a disgrace. Your conscience is sadly uninformed. God forgive you.

  18. At David Lynch, “It’s not mine, but I’ll take it anyway.” Baby boomer, perchance?
    Not only non-Catholics (unless prior arrangement with the consent of the bishop has been made on the basis of each individual’s acceptance of the Church’s teaching on transubstantiation), but Catholics not in a state of grace should, for the sake of their souls if not out of any sense of respect, remain seated.
    I do not know why people go forward for blessings – they receive a blessing at the end of the Mass anyway, whether Catholic or not, or in a state of grace or not, so why not stay make a spiritual communion instead from the pews?

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