Friday, December 13, 2013

The purpose of the funeral. . .

I have written appreciatively before of the pastoral perspective of Msgr Charles Pope and here he does not fail me.  He writes because Protestants and Lutherans seem not to be the only ones for whom the funeral has become a distorted, crass, and man centered event.  It appears the goal of these celebrations of life is to remember as many funny stories about the deceased, proclaim the goodness of that person's life, and remind ourselves of the hobbies, interests, and pursuits that gave this person's life meaning.  Jesus comes more as a mourner than the bearer of hope, the bringer of life, and the promiser of our own joyful resurrection.

Here is the lament of Fr. Pope:

There is a basic confusion about the purpose of a funeral. Many people arrive at the parish to plan a funeral and their basic presumption is that the funeral is all about “Uncle Joe,” who he was, what he liked, etc. This then generates a whole series of, often inappropriate, requests. For example,
  1. Uncle Joe’s favorite song was “I did it my way.” Therefore we want a soloist to sing this song.
  2. Uncle Joe’s three favorite nieces want to say “a few words” about what a great uncle he was. Therefore we want them to be able to speak after communion.”
  3. Of course we all know what a great football fan Joe was, that he never missed a game, so we are going to have flowers in the team colors, want a football on a table near the altar,  and ask that a letter from the team’s front office be read in tribute after communion, and after the nieces.
  4. Also, Father, in your sermon please remember to mention Joe’s great concern for this cause, and that cause.
  5. And don’t forget to mention that he was a founding member here at St Esmerelda and the president of the Men’s club.
Well, you get the point. But of course none of this is the real purpose of a funeral at all. Like any celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, the essential purpose of the funeral is the worship of God, the proclamation of the Gospel, and the celebration of the paschal mystery. Secondarily, the Mass is offered for the repose of the soul the deceased and should invite prayer for the judgment they face, and for their ultimate and happy repose after any necessary purification.

The sacred liturgy exists to glorify God, not man, to praise the Lord, not Uncle Joe. No matter how great a guy Uncle Joe was, he doesn’t stand a chance if not for Jesus, and lots of grace and mercy. Joe needs prayer more than praise, and whatever gifts he did have, were from God. God should be thanked and praised for them.

Thus, too many funerals focus on man, not God. Too many funerals focus on human achievements rather than the need for grace and mercy, and gratitude for for all that has been received.

As a practical matter, in my parish we do not allow family members to speak during the funeral Mass at all. If there is someone who wants to say a few words, this is done prior to the beginning of the Funeral Mass. But once Mass begins, it is the Mass, and only the Mass.

One more thing I might share of his comments...  this is a somber reminder that the funeral is also the opportunity to call to account the Christians whose faith has grown cold, the call to repentance those who have been absent from or even estranged from the sacramental life of the church, and to speak Christ to those who do not yet know Him...

The words of Msgr. Pope:

The Immediate family is not the only object of concern and ministry at a funeral. While every priest and deacon who preaches is aware that a funeral is a sensitive moment for the family, he cannot simply and only minister to them. Present at most funerals, (in great abundance, frankly), are many who are unchurched, and who need to be called to Jesus. Sometimes these are also in the immediately family.
The clergy should not simply let this moment pass. Honestly the only time many clergy see a lot of these people is at funerals. Waiting for “another time” to call them to repentance and to faith is not an option. They are here now, and they must be called now.

Therefore a good funeral seeks to minister not only to the immediate family, but to all in attendance who are in varying states of spiritual health or disease.

Pastoral experience tells me that upwards of 80% of funeral attendees and in a very grave spiritual condition. Most of them are not serious about their spiritual life, they are not praying, they are not reading Scripture, they are not attending Mass or going to any service on Sundays, and many are in very serious and unrepented mortal sin. This is just a fact.

And to have that many at a funeral and say nothing to them at all about their need to repent and call on Jesus, is malpractice. Priests, whether they like it our not are watchmen for the house of Israel. They must go on ahead of the Judge to follow and summon people to repentance and saving faith.

This can be and should be done at funerals. It is possible to do so with loving conviction and a passionate cry.

I have done this for many years at funerals and have almost never received complaints. To the contrary, I have received many expressions of gratitude from people who are desperate for their wayward relatives to hear such a message. I have also joyfully received back a number of people to the practice of the faith on account of it.

Thus funerals must minster to everyone. They are moments that are pregnant with meaning and possibilities. They are evangelical moments.


Anonymous said...

My understanding is that in past years it was not uncommon for parishioners to attend any funeral service held in their church, regardless of their personal connection to the deceased. There was a recognition that the service was for the congregation not just the family of the dead. I don't know how widespread a practice this was, but it seems to me that it recognized something fundamental about that community of believers and the confession shared there.

Anonymous said...

My funeral plan: I want a Where’s Waldo funeral sermon.
Husband to his wife.
Father to his children.
A decent employee.
Attended Church faithfully.
With the Saints in Heaven. Believed the Gospel and knew his salvation was dependent on who Christ was and what He did. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, brought to faith. Through the Lord’s Supper, sins were forgiven and faith was strengthened and preserved to eternal life.
Believe God’s promise in His Word that He does what He said he would do through His Sacraments and you can be sure of where the deceased is and that you will one day join him. Not in who I am or what I have done, but in who God is and what He has done in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 4:13, "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope."

Dr.D said...

Dear Pastor Peters,

In your introduction, you said, "...and here he does not fail to disappoint me."

Are you saying that he has disappointed you? That seems to be the meaning of your statement, but it does not sound like your usual position on matters of faith.

I thought the priest's comments were spot on.

Fr. D+
Anglican Priest

Pastor Peters said...

My error in typing... he does not fail me... period