Ritual rewards


WHAT MARY HANSEN REMEMBERS ABOUT HER FATHER'S sudden death 22 years ago was praying the rosary at St. Anthony's Church in Tigard, Oregon. She and her family were surrounded by members of the parish whom they had known all of their lives. It was her family church and the place she had attended school. "It was soothing," she says of the funeral prayer service. "It had a very calming affect on the rest of the family." Her father, Emil Van Goethem, died of a heart attack at the age of 75. Praying together as a family helped Hansen, now 50, say goodbye to her dad.

face"It was definitely the pathway to that," she says. What Hansen remembers about her brother's death is very different. There was so much anger and resentment," she says. Her brother, George, died in Alabama of lung cancer in 1974. Although family members in Oregon knew he was ill, the timing of his death was a shock. "We weren't critically aware of how sick he was," says Hansen. "He called the week before Christmas, and we had no idea he was saying goodbye. A week after [his death] we got Christmas cards from him." Hansen, home with two small children at the time, could not afford to travel to Alabama for her brother's funeral. "There was absolutely no closure, no resolution, no peacefulness," she says. "At the time, I knew nothing about ritual and how soothing it could be."

"If we don't say goodbye well, we can't go on," says Father John Cippel, pastor of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini parish in Spring Hill, Florida. "If you don't bury the dead, the dead will bury you."

When Cippel, 63, celebrated the funeral Mass for his mother, Julia, in 1995, each stage of the ritual helped him move to his final farewell.

The symbols of the Catholic funeral ritual are intended to be messages of hope. Holy water, incense, the lighting of the Easter candle, and the white pall draped over a casket are symbols of Baptism as well as death. "It gives you a sense of the continuity of a person's life—going back to the beginning," says Cippel, who recently completed a master's degree in Christian spirituality from Creighton University in Omaha. Today when he thinks of his mother, he recalls the scripture he read at her funeral: "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:6). "The Catholic funeral service doesn't deny what has happened, but it says it's a part of a greater reality," he says.

What people remember from the funerals of their loved ones is key to the impact of the rituals, says Father Richard Rutherford, C.S.C., chairman of the theology department at the University of Portland, Oregon.

"Roman Catholic faith and liturgy offer an interpretation of death and loss that is understandable and suggests a way of making sense out of the often incomprehensible mystery of death," writes Rutherford in "The Rites of Death and Dying," a paper presented at the 1987 national meeting of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions. In "Funeral Liturgy—Why Bother?" Rutherford, reports some of his findings during a study of randomly selected widowed persons.

"Being religious or not does not significantly affect bereavement outcome," he says. But for people who are religious, "liturgy certainly has an impact." And a memory of the liturgy was the key to that impact.

"There is a natural mystery going on here," says Rutherford. "We really are in the realm of mystery when we are dealing with death." In The Death of a Christian: The Order of Christian Funerals (Liturgical Press, 1990).

"For the Christian," Rutherford writes, "the interval between death and burial is a time when the reality of death and faith in eternal life coincide, a time when faith becomes inseparably entwined with personal suffering. It is a time of special need, when the human psyche seeks solace in the cultural customs of grief and consolation. "The Catholic funeral liturgy grew out of the experience of Christian people through the centuries, providing a context of faith in which to begin the process of coping and adapting to a new life situation caused by the loss of the deceased."

Forget me not
Rutherford has some ideas about how to promote memorable liturgical engagement in Catholic funeral rituals. He refers to them as his "Forget me nots."

casketFirst, he says, "The funeral is neither death denying or canonization. That is something that we need to be very sensitive to and worry about." We are all sinners.

Second is the need to preserve the integrity of the Catholic funeral ritual. "Remember," he says, "that the rites of our Order of Christian Funerals have an inner coherence of ritual parts and serve the whole liturgical experience best when given their due." Every part of the funeral has a purpose and a natural flow.

"This isn't a haphazard collection of things—it goes somewhere," Rutherford explains. From the vigil over the body, or the wake, to the funeral Mass to the committal of the body—the ritual moves the mourners through a process.

One of the practices Rutherford worries about today "is this business of reopening the casket at the end of a funeral." The funeral ritual is designed to "bring the whole church on this journey that is moving this procession somewhere beyond this death." Reopening the casket can interrupt the journey. Even if family members arrive late to a funeral, Rutherford does not think it is appropriate to reopen the casket publicly for another viewing of the deceased.

He suggests family members accommodate latecomers by privately reopening the casket outside of the funeral procession. It is important that survivors have time to pay their respects, to reverence the body, he says. But the integrity of the funeral ritual process needs to be preserved.

Privatization is another of Rutherford's issues. He objects to the idea that funerals should be held in private—even those of celebrities. "This liturgy has an integrity. By saying it's private, we've missed something. It's for the rest of us as much as for the family," he says.

"Vatican II says we are all the church, and we need to respond to these people in their grief," says Sister Marlene Luffy, C.D.P., a coordinator of bereavement programs for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

"The General Introduction of the Order of Christian Funerals" states: "The Church calls each member of Christ's Body—priest, deacon, lay person—to participate in the ministry of consolation: to care for the dying, to pray for the dead, to comfort all who mourn," says Luffy.

"In the last 30 to 50 years the tendency was to discard our faith. We kind of left this up to the behavioral science professionals. But we are baptized in Christ so we need to take care of our brothers and sisters," she says. Luffy helps establish bereavement groups in parishes throughout Pittsburgh. She puts together teams of 10 to 12 people in each parish to spring into action as part of the church response to death.

Her team members are trained to recognize the stages of shock, suffering, and recovery of grieving persons. And they make sure that mourners are not abandoned by the church a couple hours after the funeral liturgy ends. "We cannot go through grief alone," she says. "We need to say to a grieving person that the church is here for you."

Luffy's trained volunteers accompany mourners through the funeral rites and later during family gatherings and meals. They visit the survivors often after the death and make phone calls of support. She even has prepared an additional memorial service to be carried out months after the funeral. Parish priests take part in the service, which allows the mourners to eulogize their loved ones. It ends with prayers from the funeral ritual.

When Luffy lost her mother at the age of 94, her entire family was able to attend the funeral. Her mother, Margaret, died at Thanksgiving when all of her grandchildren were home from college. "There were three generations there, and we all talked about grandma," she says. Family members gathered for a meal and prayers. "We asked mother to help us to love each other. It helped because we were in community together. We had a toast to my mother and after dinner we went to my mother's bedroom and we put everything out.

"Margaret means pearl, so at the funeral home we gave out pearls," she says. Most individuals and families do not have those opportunities. Or they are too distraught during the funeral to make those arrangements.

Sharing things like pearls, memories, and items from the deceased are some of the practices included in the follow-up ritual of parish memorial services. Ethnic traditions, clothing, or special cultural prayers can also be incorporated into the memorial services. Different cultures have various customs about honoring their deceased loved ones, but Rutherford says those usually take place alongside the rites rather than during the funeral Mass.

"With the rare exception of really well-integrated, cross-cultural parish situations, the ethnic practices are on one track and the church practices are on another," he says. "The church is doing its liturgy and people are coming but they may also be doing their own thing alongside.

"Ritualizing conjures up that person—it releases emotions. We are filled up with stress and that grief has to come out of our system."

Cippel agrees. "You've got to extricate that emotional energy because you need that emotional energy," he says. "If you are going to do anything well in life—you've got to say a lot of goodbyes. It's always scary because you never know, will I be able to connect with this unknown future? We have to learn to relinquish and go on."

"The Order of Christian Funerals" says: "The celebration of the Christian funeral brings hope and consolation to the living. While proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and witnessing to Christian hope in the resurrection, the funeral rites also recall to all who take part in them God's mercy and judgment and meet the human need to turn always to God in times of crisis."

Rutherford supports the need for parishes to involve more people in pastoral care for the bereaved. "No Catholic should face the death of a loved one without the prayer of the church for the deceased or the funeral celebration of paschal faith and the consolation of Christian hope for the living," he writes in The Death of a Christian.

The funeral order expands the role of church members to console mourners and even to assist them "with some of the routine tasks of daily living."

Today, funeral directors often are the first team of people to respond when a parishioner dies. "The first thing we do is get the families together," says Frank Joyce of Joyce Funeral Home in Waltham, Massachusetts. The family funeral business was established by his grandfather in 1910. At that time, families would gather in the parlor of his grandfather's home to receive the entire parish community. The more family members are involved in the planning of their loved ones' funerals, the better they cope, says Joyce. He was 20 when his father died during a trip to Florida in 1970. He traveled to Florida to accompany his father's body back to Boston and he, along with his mother and four sisters, made all of the funeral arrangements. "In the absence of getting involved, I probably would have gone out of my mind," he says.

incense Although participating in funeral arrangements is something that Joyce encourages, he also warns against too much preplanning. "Despite what their own ideas are, their family might have other needs," he says. For example, some people stipulate they do not want an open casket at their funeral. Family members usually feel a moral obligation to abide by the wishes of their deceased loved ones. But, he says, "I think people have a real need to view the body." Children, in particular, "attach great mystery to what they don't know and what they don't see," he says.

He recalled once being asked by an 8-year-old boy whether his grandfather's head was in the casket along with the body. "Kids attach such mystery to this that seeing it with their own eyes eliminates fear."

Margarita Brown of St. Petersburg, Florida helped her sister Carmelita Cottle plan her own funeral. When Cottle was dying of cancer in 1993, Brown accompanied her to Calvary Catholic Cemetery to select a casket and a crypt. She also worked with the local funeral director and the parish staff to prepare the music and the readings for her funeral Mass.

When Cottle died on July 10, 1993, all of the details were in place. Her friends from the parish prayer group played music selected by Cottle for her wake service.

"We stood around the casket and we sang the songs that we sang at the prayer group," says Brown. The funeral was held at the Cathedral of St. Jude where Cottle and her family were pioneer members. "The support of all my friends was the number one thing I remember," says Brown. "Now, I make sure that I'm there for someone else when they are going through that."

Brown followed her sister's request to have an open casket during the funeral rituals. In the end, she was glad she did. "All I could think of when I looked at her was Sleeping Beauty," says Brown. "She looked so peaceful."

Rutherford says he believes open caskets are purely a preference. "It is personal choice, it is simply time with the body," he says. The important thing, he adds, is that the church reveres the body of the deceased. Paying respects to the body is one of the issues surrounding cremation.

"Cremated remains should be allowed at funeral liturgy!" says Rutherford. "And, proper liturgical rites should be developed that honor more fully the difference between the human body present and cremated remains present."

The U.S. bishops have sent a request to Rome for permission to allow the ashes of cremated bodies inside the church. Currently, in the case of cremations, the church can begin the funeral ritual at the cemetery and return to the church for the Mass.

The church assumes that cremation is a process that takes place "after the deceased has been committed to God and bidden farewell," says Rutherford in his book. Cremation is expected to take place after the committal service.

But because that is not always practical, Rutherford explains, the funeral liturgy offers a couple of options. The first is to do nothing liturgically with the cremated remains and simply gather for a memorial Mass sometime after the disposition of the ashes. Or, families and friends can gather first in the cemetery for the Rite of Committal with the cremated remains in the grave or columbarium and then go to the church for the funeral Mass without the body present.

"Prior to cremation, it is the body that holds our faithful attention," he says. "After cremation, it is the grave or niche."

The church already has allowed ashes into churches in Canada, so Rutherford believes the U.S. will receive approval as well—possibly as early as this spring. Then it will be up to the U.S. bishops to determine how to deal with the cremated remains in the funeral ritual process.

"We have to take very seriously the difference between the body, the corpse, and the remains which are no longer the body," he says. The funeral ritual, he writes in his book, "is far more than a mere set of rubrics for disposing of a corpse. It has become a truly human Christian symbolic language allowing death and the grief of loss a rightful voice in the faith community." 

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