Planning Your Funeral

By Martina Hart/The Catholic Spirit
CHARLESTON—November was a time of remembrance of last things, starting with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls and the readings throughout the month about death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Parishioners at the Basilica of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Charleston were invited to “Let’s plan a funeral – Yours!”
Very Rev. Donald X. Higgs, Assoc. V.F., rector of the basilica, facilitated two, one-hour workshops, in the morning of November 18 and the evening of November 21, to discuss the funeral rites and liturgy of the Catholic Church and encourage participants to start planning their own funerals.
“At the end of all this reflection during the month of November we make a statement,” Father Higgs said. “The last feast of the year is Christ the King. So, that is how we sum all that reflection up about the last things; in the midst of all this, Christ is King.”
Every Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent we are not only reminded to be renewed and reformed, but also through the ashes placed on our foreheads we “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Generally, in our culture, we avoid thinking or talking about death, deny it or view it as a “private thing.” Instead death is the passage to eternal life and takes place in the context of the Christian community.
“Overall, we have that theme as Christians that our life is a pilgrimage,” Father Higgs said. “We come from God, and we will return to God. … We are on that pilgrimage to return home.” This journey begins with baptism and ends with the funeral rites, the wake, the service, and the committal.
“The funeral rites begin with the pastoral care of the person that is ill, the journey of one experiencing the effects of age or illness, that our bodies do diminish,” he said. He gave the example of Saint John Paul II whose journey was followed publicly as he grew weaker, not able to walk or speak well. As such, a sick person can be a powerful witness to the community of being faithful in the midst of pain and suffering and that suffering can ultimately bring about something good.
The Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament that brings peace, strength, courage (and can be received throughout one’s life, e.g. before undergoing surgery) while the Viaticum (Latin for “on the way with you”) is the last Eucharist received by the dying person as food for the journey. Prayers for the deceased person are not only said at the wake or vigil service but also at the death bed, while gathering in the presence of the deceased body, at the first viewing of the body and when the body or cremated remains are transferred from the funeral home to the church or the place of committal at the cemetery.
There are three tasks of the funeral liturgy itself, Father Higgs explained: Praying for the dead, care of the family and friends, and thanksgiving to God for this life. “Overall it is a celebration of the Paschal mystery of Jesus and the dead person’s lifelong participation in that Paschal mystery,” he said, the mystery of death to sin and rising to new life which for each person began in baptism. There are parallels between the rites of baptism and funeral with the use of water, the white baptismal garment/the pall spread over the casket, and lighting of candles.
“We do two things at the same time,” Father Higgs said. “We grieve because we are human and we rejoice because we are Christian.” The music during the funeral Mass are about praising God and the readings taken from scripture. The homily is a reflection of the readings and how the deceased person attempted to live out their faith in Christ and what God did through them. Other music selections, poems, etc. can be used during the wake and/or at the meal following the funeral.
There is a debate about including eulogies by family members and friends during the funeral Mass with a tendency to allow for brief remarks at the of Mass and/or to include them in a wake service. Family and friends should be involved in the liturgy, e.g. as lectors or gift bearers. Coming together, reminiscing, and supporting one another are considered helpful in the grief process.
Workshop participants discussed ways in which the parish community can be involved, e.g. by attending the funerals of fellow parishioners, regardless of how “close” they were, as they are part of the community; by helping with ministries such as funeral luncheons, and by following up with families after the funeral. Father Higgs also addressed the topic of cremation. While the church prefers to have the body present for the funeral rites, it is permitted to have it cremated and to treat the remains just like the body. The cremains need to be kept intact and buried or placed in a mausoleum. They are not to be scattered. Organ donation or donating one’s body to science are considered noble acts as they benefit the lives of others. In the case of someone donating his/her body to science, a memorial Mass may be celebrated shortly after their death while the funeral liturgy with committal of the remains will take place at a later date.
Workshop participants received the book “Now and at the hour of our death” (Liturgy Training Publications) to assist them in writing down preparations and desires regarding medical treatment, finances, death, and funeral. Father Higgs encouraged them to let their families know about their plans, even if it may not be an easy topic to talk about, but which will ultimately be helpful to them.
“This is a faith statement,” he said, “a witness to your family, to your friends … a powerful witness of your faith life.”