A Catholic funeral orients us to hope

Dr. Karen Shadle

There’s a funeral scene in the movie “Love Actually.” Liam Neeson’s character stands awkwardly beside a casket and in front of a large screen. While some candles flicker on the altar and a priest and server stand idly by, Neeson waxes poetic. He concludes with a slide show on the screen, accompanied by the Bay City Rollers’ “Bye Bye Baby.” While the song plays, the ministers and pall bearers lift the casket and process out of the church.

This should come as no surprise, but the movies do not usually provide an accurate depiction of the Church’s funeral rites. In Hollywood, a funeral usually functions as a point of emotional catharsis for the audience. For the actors and actresses, it’s a chance to play for an Oscar nomination by delivering a passionate, emotional soliloquy that would make Hamlet weep. Think of Robin Williams in “What Dreams May Come” or William Shatner at Spock’s funeral in “The Wrath of Khan.”

If you’re not a member of the clergy, parish staff, or a musician, you probably attend funerals infrequently. So it can be surprising when they do not match our cultural imagination.

The Catholic funeral rites, which are really three distinct rites, put the death of the Christian person in the context of Paschal Mystery — the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Those assembled for a funeral are often filled with intense emotions, especially sadness. But the Catholic funeral orients us toward hope. We assert our belief in everlasting life, not just for the deceased, but for all people of faith.

Many of the symbols at a funeral recall baptism: sprinkled water, the Easter candle, and the white funeral pall, which recalls the baptismal garment. All of these symbols remind us that death is the door to new life.

While there is an option for brief words of remembrance in the funeral Mass, the church states firmly that there is never to be a eulogy in the cinematic sense (Order of Christian Funerals #27).

Instead, all elements of the Catholic funeral point to the Paschal mystery and the promise of salvation. Rather than a lengthy biographical odyssey, any words about the deceased highlight the love of God made manifest in their life.

Besides their overemphasis on eulogies, Hollywood funerals also present another incongruity: They tend to combine quirky personal elements with sacred ritual.

Even though “Bye Bye Baby” may hold some meaning for the deceased, it does not speak to the promise of everlasting life.

There is a natural tendency for loved ones to want to give a final send-off that is memorable and unique. Personal elements will likely color the homily and other details. But the Catholic funeral (and really any rite of the church) should not be excessively personalized. All funerals are somewhat alike because we are all made in the image and likeness of God.

For pastoral ministers, it can sometimes be a challenge to prepare meaningful funerals that respect the church’s ritual traditions, especially when expectations are clouded by inaccurate appropriations of Catholicism in popular culture.

Nevertheless, I continue to believe that this is one of our most important rites because of its ability to evangelize. Without question, the Catholic funeral is primarily a strong statement of our belief in the resurrection.

Every detail leads us back to that central mystery.

Dr. Karen Shadle is the director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of Louisville.

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