By Dr. Judy Bullock
At this time of year, when we celebrate the feast days of All Saints and All Souls, our minds and hearts turn toward those who have died. It is the long-standing teaching of the church that our ties with each other do not end with death. Giving clear testimony to this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the communion of saints as the unity in Christ of all the redeemed, those on earth and those who have died. Not only do we remember with love those who have gone before us, but we pray for them in earnest. Our prayers for the dead not only give thanks for the life of the person God gave us, but also offer atonement for the vestiges of sin remaining at the end of life.
The funeral rites
We have heard it said that funerals are for the living. There is some truth to this, especially regarding the ministry the funeral rites provide for those grieving a loss. However, more importantly, the funeral rites are for the persons who have died. It is their right as baptized Christians and our duty as the body of Christ, the church.
There are three primary services that the church celebrates at the death of a Christian: the funeral vigil, the funeral Mass, and the rite of committal. Each of these rites includes the consoling words of Scripture, intercessions for God’s mercy for the deceased and the celebration of the paschal mystery. Written in the “Order of Christian Funerals” are the words, “in the face of death, the church confidently proclaims that God has created each person for eternal life and that Jesus, the Son of God, by his death and resurrection, has broken the chains of sin and death that bound humanity.”
Words of remembrance
In most families part of the response to the death of a loved one is to tell stories in remembrance of the person who has died, at first processing their last days, final dialogues and moments to cherish. After the initial reaction, the stories move to testimonies of character, witnessing to the legacy of faith that they leave behind. Within the funeral rites, at the close of the funeral vigil and during the Funeral Mass after Communion, there is an opportunity when a representative of the family may speak some words of remembrance. This brief testimony gives witness to the faith life of the person who has died. Since it may be difficult for family members to speak these words during the funeral, a friend of the family may be asked to read them during the liturgy.
What should the family expect?
When a loved one is near death, members of the family frequently have many questions regarding the funeral rites. They are not sure what responsibilities the family has in the planning process, what options are open to them and what guidelines are available to help them. Some may want to respond to wishes expressed by their loved ones, while others are beginning the process of preparation from scratch.
The church stresses that, if possible, members of the family should be involved in the planning of these rites: selecting from the options for texts; music selections; and liturgical ministers. The priests, deacons and members of the parish staff, as well as those involved in the bereavement ministry of the parish, will provide assistance to the grieving family, giving them the available options and offering guidance in making these decisions.
Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.