I read this commentary this morning by a Jewish Rabbi. He hits the nail on the head about how so many in our culture do not want to face the grief that comes with death and thus choose to forgo funerals and substitute a “celebration of life” instead, so they won’t feel bad about their loved-one’s death! Of course, as Catholics, we encourage the full “requiem” experience for the deceased (we pray for the dead and the happy repose of their souls) and for the living to express their grief even if they cry publicly and feel bad about the death of someone they love. Feeling bad and sad at a loved-one’s death is a sign of love!!!! Thus the full funeral arrangements of the Church includes prayers at the hour of death, the wake service the night before the Requiem Mass to either pray the Rosary or the Vigil for the Deceased and to meet and greet family and friends and to gather by the body and form a relationship with the person now dead. It’s all very healthy! The next day is the Funeral Mass followed by the Rite of Committal or Christian burial at the cemetery either of the body or the “ashes” of cremation. Catholics are required by Church law to buried the mortal remains of our loved ones be it the complete body or the “ashes.” While it is permitted to forgo the wake or even the Funeral Mass and simply have a grave side “rite of Committal” the complete rites of the Catholic Church allow us to experience God’s grace to assist the deceased as he faces his personal judgment and the purification needed to enter heaven. It helps us to experience God’s grace of healing as we mourn and mourn we should. Read this article—the good Rabbi makes perfect sense even for Christians.
Some time ago I officiated at the funeral of a person in their nineties. One of the children of the deceased rose to address those gathered at the funeral home. The individual, fighting back tears, expressed the hope that this funeral service would be a celebration of life. At the same time I watched the other siblings break into tears, and guests also wiped their eyes. Somehow, that ceremony did not feel like a celebration of life.
I have officiated at many so-called celebration of life ceremonies. They are usually held after some time has passed, allowing the family to get through the initial period of grief. I find that to be totally appropriate. The tone of the service, the readings, the speakers and the music are different from a funeral service. There is a much more relaxed atmosphere, where friends and family have had time to reflect on the deceased and console themselves and other mourners. I can sense the comfort that celebration of life ceremonies have when they are held in the right framework.
Do these ceremonies replace the funeral service? My view: Funerals are for mourning and to express our heartfelt emotions when someone dies. Sometimes humor is appropriate, depending on the circumstances. But I wonder if, by avoiding funerals, people are trying to avoid dealing with the realities of losing a loved one.Some funeral home directors have noted that an increasing number of families want to forgo a funeral service. Some families will say, ‘Dad didn’t want a funeral service at all!’ The result is that Dad is cremated, mostly for financial reasons, and no service is held. Does that show more about what Dad wanted, or what the family is trying to avoid?
Best way to grieve?
People grieve differently. There is no one way to mourn a death. Clearly, family history and past relationships play an important role in determining how people not only react to the death of a close friend or family member, but in how they observe the passing in a ritualistic sense.
Families have discussions, and sometimes disagreements, about how their loved one should be buried. How many times have those discussions led to arguments about where they should be laid to rest? “We live in Florida now, so if we bury Mom here, then we can visit her, as compared to burying Mom with Dad [her husband for almost 50 years] in their joint plots up North.”
Facing our own mortality is not an easy task. Many plan and purchase services as a preparation for death, but many others do not, and the families are left to figure out arrangements, in addition to the expenses of the funeral itself.Shouldn’t there be a way for people to express their emotions, rather than hide them or avoid the outpouring of grief that can come during a funeral? Does such a service help the surviving family come to grips with Grandma’s passing?
Perhaps the bigger questions: Are we living in a world where we don’t want to expose ourselves, let alone our children, to death? Are we also uncomfortable with the emotions and the challenge of bidding farewell to our loved ones?
Celebrate life with the living
The celebration of life ceremony has its place in the proper time and context. I question whether it is a suitable substitute for the more difficult funeral experience that forces us to visit our sense of loss.
A few years ago I buried my mother at age 98. When we lowered her casket into the grave, I said to her, “It’s OK, Mom.” I think about her every day, as I do my father. The funeral was painful and, yet, I felt good about what we did for her and how we reminisced later about her life and even laughed a bit. Her burial and the rituals that went with it were as much for us, her family, as for her.Funerals are rituals which can have a lifelong impact. Learning how to mourn and grieve is also about setting an example to the younger generations about life and mortality. This is an important part of growing into adulthood.
What if, instead of dispensing, we have a celebration of life for the loved ones while they are still alive and let them know how much we appreciate them? Then, let the funeral do what it was supposed to do: allow us to honor, mourn and grieve their passing. That is part of the cycle of life.