Christian Death’s Secularization


Recently two gentlemen very dear to me passed away.  Both were devout Catholics.  Although I could not attend their funerals their respective families supplied me with a memorial card distributed at the Funeral Home for one and the booklet used at Mass for the other.

I was startled to see that both items bore a very secular message. In the first instance, I received a bookmark like picture of a deer peering through the trees in the forest.  On the rear of the card was a simple obituary.  In the latter case I received a Mass Booklet with a picture of the deceased on the cover.  It was entitled “Celebration for the Life of…” followed by a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Neither of these had any reference to Christ, Purgatory, Prayer, or the Mass; all essential to the Catholic understanding of death.  Both of these artifacts are indicative of a heretical trend which views death simply as an end with little thought of an afterlife.  Hence, the focus is on the deceased person’s past life.  This being the case, a funeral becomes simply a celebration of the dead person’s accomplishments and good memories of them recalled by their survivors.

Such a concept of death lends itself to the title of a song made famous by Peggy Lee over forty years ago, “Is That All There Is?”

The basic tenet of Christian belief is in the Resurrection of Christ.  It has always been understood that because of our incorporation into his life at baptism that we would share in a like resurrection.  This means that Christians live in hope that their mortal bodies will be remade into his glorified body.  For Christians death is not a review of the past but instead a time to focus on a hope-filled future-living in Christ for all eternity.

Mass of Christian Burial is not a time to celebrate the life of the deceased but to celebrate Christ and what he has done for believers.  To do otherwise is to forget the purpose of Christianity and erodes any understanding of life after death.

Perhaps the only message we can garner from this current celebration of humanity, which is devoid of reference to Jesus or God, is what many people now state to be their belief; “I am spiritual, but not religious.”  Hence, the appearance of the deer lost in the woods on the memorial card and the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson on the Mass booklet.  Recall, Emerson was a Transcendentalist, so too was Walt Whitman.  Their theology can be gleaned in Whitman’s Song to Myself.  These men’s writings contain the contemporary earth bound spirituality which has gained hegemony in many Protestant churches and is growing rapidly in the Catholic Church.

Saint Paul warned against this heretical belief.  He said, in I Corinthians, “If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are the most pitiable of all men.” (15:19).

The above examples are indicative of the dumbing down of afterlife beliefs among Catholics.  Because of this many families no longer bring the body of the deceased to Church for a Mass. Any prayer, in many cases, is now reserved to a funeral home service where a eulogy read by a family member becomes the keynote.  Or, increasingly popular, is a quick cremation after death with no funeral rites at all.

All of this flies in the face of traditional Catholic theology. Central to Catholic belief is life after death and the importance of prayer for the deceased. Praying for the dead is tied in with the Catholic teaching on Purgatory, a place of purification for unremitted punishment due to sin, [s]o as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter heaven (Catechism of the Catholic Church (n.1030-31)

The Mass of Christian Burial is celebrated and attended by the mourners to pray for the soul of the deceased in order that their sins may be forgiven. The perfect prayer of the Mass is invaluable in aiding them to enter into heaven.

All too often, the contemporary Funeral Mass has become focused on the deceased persons past life. If there is a belief in an afterlife it is often proclaimed that there is now a new saint in heaven.  Such impromptu canonizations are contrary to what the Church teaches. Even worse both of these aberrations mislead those who are in attendance at the funeral.  The Order of Christian Funerals warns against these liturgically contexted eulogies. Nevertheless, they have now become d’rigour and socially expected.

One of the Spiritual Works of Mercy is to Pray for the Dead.  This obligation is well attested to;

[f]rom the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that thus purified they may attain the beatific vision of God(Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1032).

The Mass along with other prayers has always been deemed efficacious for the releasing a soul from Purgatory.  This being the case, the memorial card distributed at a Catholic wake in the past always portrayed a picture of Christ, our Lady, a saint or a Scripture quote in front, the name and date of the deceased’s death on the rear, with a prayer begging God’s mercy for their entrance into heaven beneath.  This attested to the faith of the deceased person and the faith of their family in the Resurrection.  It also begged those attending the wake to pray for the person who died.  This type of prayer card has all but disappeared. Without an understanding of eternal life or Purgatory there is, after all, no longer any need for prayers – they are useless. Even worse, if there is no belief in life after death the whole Christian enterprise becomes a sham.  Because of this heresy, there is now, quite logically, evidence that the number of baptisms are decreasing.

These disturbing trends have led to a decrease in announced and unannounced Masses celebrated for the repose of the deceased (aka – the faithful departed) in many parishes.  This is tragic since many souls are in need of prayers. (This being so, dear reader, when my earthly life comes to its end, presume the worst. But, hope in God’s mercy and offer Mass and prayers that God, in time, may find me acceptable to enter into his presence.)

What can be done?

1.    Pastors need to begin an immediate catechesis in their parishes on our Catholic belief regarding life after death.

2.    Seminars must be held by dioceses and/or parishes for funeral directors as to how they should guide their clients regarding appropriate Catholic funeral practices.

3.    Pastors should personally meet with Funeral Directors in their parishes to discuss these issues and their concerns.

4.    Pastors should arrange a pre-funeral meeting with the families of the deceased.

5.    Model funeral remembrance cards with appropriate words, images and prayers should be provided to the family as to what is acceptable.

6.    A parish representative, ideally a priest or deacon, or a trained catechist should guide the production of a Funeral Mass booklet.  Only approved booklet covers with religious images and quotations should be permitted on them.

7.    Masses and prayers for the dead must be encouraged.

By following these seven recommendations pastors will be fulfilling their obligation to properly instruct the faithful.

The current heresy of celebrating the life of the deceased is doing irreparable harm to the living who are losing an understanding of purpose for and the ultimate end of Christian life. Likewise, the heretical canonizations at Funeral Masses must stop. In both cases these errors are causing the dead to linger longer in Purgatory since there is no one praying for them.

Full disclosure obliges me to admit self-interest in this essay.  Our Catholic Faith teaches us that once a soul is released from Purgatory, due to our prayers, we have gained a friend who is praying for us in heaven.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I need all the friends in high places that I can get.

images: meunierd /


Chaplain and Research Fellow at Ave Maria Law. Father Michael P. Orsi was ordained for the Diocese of Camden in 1976 and has a broad background in teaching and educational administration. Fr. Orsi has authored or co-authored four books and over 300 articles in more than 45 journals, magazines and newspapers. He has served as Assistant Chancellor, Assistant Vicar for Pastoral Services, Director of Family Life Bureau, and Coordinator of Pope John Paul II’s visit to New Jersey for the Diocese of Camden. He has also served as a member of The Institute for Genomic Research at the University of Pennsylvania and as a member of New Jersey’s Advisory Council on AIDS. Fr. Orsi holds a Doctorate in Education from Fordham University, two Master degrees in Theology from Saint Charles Seminary, and a Bachelor of Arts from Cathedral College. He is presently serving as Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Florida. He is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. In 2005 Fr. Orsi was appointed as a Senior Research Associate to the Linacre Center for Bioethics, London, England. Fr. Orsi co-hosts a weekly radio program The Advocate which discusses law and culture on WDEO-AM 990, WMAX-AM 1440 in metro Detroit and WDEO-FM 98.5 in southwest Florida [also linked at].

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