Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Invisible Funeral

More years ago than I care to count, I wrote a paper called "The Difficult Funeral," focusing on various inadequacies I sensed in the post-conciliar funeral rite. Then at least most people still had funerals! In my early parish assignments as deacon and then as priest, I did lots of funerals - the full three-part ritual of wake, funeral Mass, and burial. Especially in my first assignment as a priest, most of the funerals I did were in a foreign language, which added its own dimension of difficulty. They also often involved interment in expensive, above ground mausoleums - so much so that I once suggested that my idea of a good day was "a funeral in English with burial in the ground."

That said, at least they were still funerals, although the spirit of the funeral experience was already becoming radically altered from its original and presumably primary purpose. In part, this was thanks to the new rite (and the American adoption of white vestments as the common funeral color). In part, it was due to the increasingly therapeutic turn in our culture in the last part of the 20th century.

Even more problematic than the white vestments - with their hint of premature canonization - was the growing custom of eulogies, increasingly less and less reflective of the Church's faith that was ostensibly being proclaimed in the rest of the service.

But, as I said, at least there was a funeral. More and more often now however, the three-station funeral is becoming a thing of the past At the time I wrote my paper, one of the priests involved in Formation suggested that the difficulty lay in the compression of the three-station funeral into one event for most mourners (who would generally not be able or willing to attend all three rituals). Since then, however, even the central station - the funeral Mass itself - is often omitted. Or it is delayed and accordingly reconfigured as an after-the-fact "Memorial Mass" or "Celebration of Life." The increasing popularity of cremation is obviously also one of the culprits here. A decade or so ago, a funeral director showed me a closet full of unclaimed cremated ashes, of "loved ones" who had in effect been disposed of with minimal (or no) ceremony.

So perhaps our society has replaced the difficult funeral with the invisible funeral - something to reflect upon at least on this All Souls Day.

In our Catholic tradition, the month of November is dedicated in a special way to remembering and praying for those who have died. Our faith challenges us both to treat all of life as a preparation for a good death and not to neglect our duty to pray for those who have gone before us. Also, praying for both the living and the dead is considered one of the seven spiritual works of mercy, while burying the dead counts as one of the seven corporal works of mercy. Hence, the importance of a proper funeral, which is an especially privileged moment when the entire Church publicly intercedes on behalf on the recently deceased, a very visible expression of our membership and participation in the Communion of Saints. 

47 summers ago, when I was studying German in Austria, I often attended Mass in the village church in Siezenheim, outside Salzburg. The little church was surrounded by a traditional Friedhof (cemetery), where villagers would visit their family graves after Sunday Mass. While they did that, I would stop at the grave of Archduke Ludwig Viktor (1842-1919), with its impressive gravestone professing his loyalty to his late brother, the Austrian Kaiser Franz Josef. Like the Hapsburg Empire, it seems that our traditional funeral ritual and the worldview and sentiments that gave that ritual meaning have increasingly receded into a vanished world.

Even so,  it remains a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins (2 Maccabees 12:46).

Photo: Calvary Cemetery, Knoxville, TN.

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