By Lara Pickford-Gordon
It has become customary for the front cover of funeral rites’ programmes to state that it is a “Celebration of Life” of the deceased. Tributes, secular music or a projector displaying images from the person’s life are popular. These are not integral, however. The liturgy always takes precedence.
Fr Robert Christo, Vicar for Communications, said the focus at the funeral should not just be about celebration of life. He explained, “Though there is a need to exercise discretion and pastoral sensitivity, one cannot discount it is a privileged opportunity to pray for the dead.”
He added, “The Christian funeral liturgy emphasises the resurrection of the body, need for merciful judgement” and for some “elevation into paradise from purgatory”. The focus is the theology of hope and faith.
According to Canon Law, 1176. 1. “Deceased members of the Christian faithful must be given ecclesiastical funerals according to the norm of law.” 1176. 2 states, “Ecclesiastical funerals, by which the Church seeks spiritual support for the deceased, honours their bodies, and at the same time brings the solace of hope to the living, must be celebrated according to the norm of the liturgical laws.”
The Guidelines for the Order of Christian Funerals (OCF), states the term “funeral rites” was used “as a general designation of all the liturgical celebrations whereby the assembled community worships God, commends the dead to God’s merciful love, and offers support and consolation to the grieving.” The rites comprise: the “vigil” or wake service, the “funeral liturgy”– funeral Mass or funeral Service, and “rite of committal”.
A brief homily is given based on the readings at the funeral Mass. A eulogy may be permitted to take place at the start of the rite or afterwards.
Fr Christo said, “There may be the thinking that a eulogy is a normal part of the liturgy. However at the discretion of the minister and for pastoral sensitivities they are allowed.” According to the OCF, 141: “A brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy. The homilist should dwell on God’s compassionate love and on the paschal mystery of the Lord as proclaimed in the Scripture readings. Through the homily, the community should receive the consolation and strength to face the death of one of its members with a hope that has been nourished by the proclamation of the saving word of God.”
Fr Christo said families can find “creative ways” to pay tribute to their loved ones such as having the tributes at the home during the ‘nine nights’, after the funeral or at the gravesite. Tributes “have to be managed with respect to the number of speakers and they should be succinct. A caution must be given not to presume the person has attained sainthood and is without need of prayer. You should also not overwhelm the power of the rite,” he commented.
Planning the funeral can be challenging when family members have grown apart from the faith or belong to other faiths. Fr Christo said families are usually given guidelines for planning the funeral and should do their utmost to conform.
The end of the funeral service/Mass is not the end of the Catholic’s obligation to the dead. Fr Christo said, “There is the obligation of praying for the dead during daily Mass, novenas, setting aside the month of November for the dead, maintaining and praying at the gravesite/ columbarium and participating in the annual solemnity of All Souls’ on November 2.” He said the tradition of ‘nine- nights’, ‘forty-days’, and marking the anniversary of the passing of the deceased are also encouraged.
Fr Christo said grief management to the bereaved is often overlooked. The OCF states that ministry to the grieving family is a “primary ministry and responsibility of the Christian community” and members of parishes should be encouraged and trained to participate in this “work of mercy”.
For example, St Charles Borromeo RC Church, Tunapuna established a ‘Ministry of Consolation’ in 2012. Among its main objectives are: to give persons experiencing significant loss the opportunity to express their feelings and be available to them for prayer; provide a bridge to new life where they can meet others and participate in the social, spiritual and ministerial activities of the Church while honouring the life of the deceased; and where necessary, share information that encourages growth and offers practical support from existing Church, community, government and non-governmental sources.