As a young adult, I cannot say that the practice and teaching of the Catholic Church on the funeral liturgy and the Rite of Burial is something which I have spent any time studying. And yet, as part of lived experience, it strikes me that this teaching has been shown to me throughout the years of my childhood and adolescence, and up to my present age, through my parents, holy priests and the examples of those around me who have lived — and died — well.
My first memory of the dead was at the visitation and funeral for my mother’s great-aunt when I was just six years old. I don’t remember the funeral service itself, but I remember being guided up to the casket at the visitation. My mother introduced me to Great-Aunt Albina, someone I had never met, but who had played a very important role in her life.
My mother leaned over me as she gently whispered into my ear. She pointed out the body of her aunt, explaining to me in words a young child could understand how her soul had risen to heaven, but her body would remain here on earth until Jesus came to earth again.
I was told that Great-Aunt Albina’s body would be cold because she was no longer alive, but that I could touch her hand to feel what it felt like. That there was nothing to be afraid of. We could give our loved ones a kiss goodbye on the hand or forehead or cheek if we wanted to. Then we knelt together on the cushioned kneeler and said a prayer.
To this day, I’ve been grateful for this introduction, by my mother, to the subject of death and dying — not as something to be feared, but as something that is natural, the conclusion of merely the earthly part of our eternal lives.
Attending funerals, many of them Christian funerals, has been a regular aspect of my life since I can remember. There have been several family members — when I was 10 years old we lost both my great-grandma and my grandpa in the same year — as well as the family members of good friends.
If it was a loved one of someone my siblings and I, as children or teenagers, knew, then we attended the funeral. While I can’t remember that my parents ever expressed it this way to us, we were quietly being taught the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead.
My senior year of college a freshman student died in an accident. Many who lived on campus and had known him were devastated by such a sudden and tragic loss. While his funeral was held in his hometown, a memorial service was conducted on campus the week following. His family was in attendance, along with his fraternity brothers and all of campus was invited to attend. I knocked on doors in my residence hall to invite people to go with me. The handful of people around offered some excuse as to why they couldn’t go, almost all reasoning, apologetically, that they “didn’t really know him.”
I realized then my different understanding, rooted in my Catholic faith, of the communal aspect of death.
The Church teaches in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that the Christian funeral is a liturgical celebration. That it is a ministry with a three-fold purpose — that of “expressing efficacious communion with the deceased, at the participation in that communion of the community gathered for the funeral, and at the proclamation of eternal life to the community” (CCC, No. 1684).
Reflecting on this, I became aware of the lesson my parents had been teaching me all along. That for Catholics, the Mass of Christian Burial is about more than just saying goodbye, celebrating the life of a loved one and comforting the mourning — although it is all these things — it is about the prayers we offer as a community for the soul of the departed, which is why a funeral is centered around the greatest act of communal prayer and worship the Catholic Church has, the Eucharist.
“When the celebration takes place in church the Eucharist is the heart of the Paschal reality of Christian death. In the Eucharist, the Church expresses her efficacious communion with the departed: offering to the Father in the Holy Spirit the sacrifice of the death and resurrection of Christ, she asks to purify his child of his sins and their consequences, and to admit him to the Paschal fullness of the table of the Kingdom” (CCC, No. 1689).
Most recently I had both the joy and sorrow of attending the visitation and funeral of a close family friend, Colleen McNamara, after her three year battle with cancer. The goodness of her life and of her quiet suffering throughout her battle with cancer was an incredible example of holiness on its own. Beyond these things, however, I was — and still am — most in awe of the graces brought about by her encouragement and embrace of the participation of the whole community in her suffering and death.
Singing from the choir loft during the funeral Mass, I was struck to think of the many people who sought the Lord in prayer on behalf of Colleen — some who may not have otherwise. When she was moved into Hospice care, nearly 400 people gathered in the church to pray the Rosary for her intentions.
The vigil service and funeral were just like a big reunion of family and friends, as they so often are. Colleen always had a great love for music, and teens and young adults from all three of the choirs she had helped to organize and lead over many years, spanning several “generations” of kids, were all there to sing her into heaven.
“I only wish it was under better circumstances,” someone said to me. “But how can we say what are better circumstances?” I wondered. Is the sacrament of baptism better than the anointing of the sick? Is the sacrament of matrimony better than the final blessing of the dead before burial? As a priest instructed us in the homily, the Mass of Christian Burial is the completion of our sacramental life, the fulfillment of that life which is begun at baptism and, by God’s grace, continued throughout our lives. Some may be happier occasions, yes, but I struggle to say better.
As Colleen told her sister when she knew that the cancer was terminal, for her it was a win-win. Either she would be healed and get to live longer on earth, or she would get to go to heaven and see Jesus.
“It is by the Eucharist thus celebrated that the community of the faithful, especially the family of the deceased, learn to live in communion with the one who ‘has fallen asleep in the Lord,’ by communicating in the Body of Christ of which he is a living member and, then, by praying for him and with him” (CCC, No. 1689).
I am so grateful for a Church — and a family — which has and continues to teach me to understand death in this way.