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Will Covid-19 bury Catholic funerals?

Ongoing suspensions may exacerbate two trends that were already growing at an alarming rate: the decision to forego the funeral Mass and loss of contemplation of the four last things.

A statue of Jesus is seen as cemetery employees fill in the grave of meat-packing plant employee Saul Sanchez in Greeley, Colo., April 15, 2020, after he died of a COVID-19-related illness. (CNS photo/Jim Urquhart, Reuters)

Among the less noted tragedies of the coronavirus pandemic is the continued suspension of Catholic funerals. The deceased are deprived of the holy sacrifice of the Mass offered for their souls’ repose, and family members cannot hold wakes at which they may be consoled. Now, rather than receive the funeral rites that commend them to God’s mercy, the dead are buried only with prayers recited at the funeral home or graveside. Loss of life stings us more sharply without the Church’s time-honored traditions that brilliantly interweave mourning and hope.

Pandemics should spur all Catholics to consider our mortality, and the reality of death that awaits us. For some, it has. But for those whose faith is weak or waning, Covid-19-driven suspensions may exacerbate two trends that were already growing at an alarming rate: the decision to forego the funeral Mass and loss of contemplation of the four last things.

The funeral Mass is the greatest expression of faith in God’s promise of eternal life. We know, however, that too many Catholics have lost this faith. For them, a funeral Mass does not count for much. So, when elderly parents die, some of their children who no longer practice the faith have been foregoing a funeral for them. A priest friend told me that he once confronted a family at a funeral home, where he was called to offer prayers for the family matriarch: “Why no funeral?” The answer was not money, even though wake, funeral, and burial services in New York average between $11,000-13,000. The family said they simply did not want to go through the extra hassle of having one. It’s fair to assume that if they believed Church teachings concerning the afterlife and understood what a funeral does, they would have made the effort. Sadly, this family is just one among an increasing number.

Suddenly, with funerals and wakes suspended, families have no choice but to bury their dead without the Church’s rites, unless a priest comes to the grave for committal. In obituaries for Catholics, we now see promises of a “memorial Mass,” “memorial service” or “celebration of life” at a future date.

We know too well that, when catechesis is not sound, strange or even harmful trends spread like wildfire through the Church—the proliferation of guitar liturgies, felt banners, goofy stained-glass windows, holy communion received in the hand, and altars turned away from God are just a few recent examples. With the lamentable understanding of the Mass and the afterlife that persists among too many Catholics, we shudder to think that, after a few months of precedent, omitting the traditional funeral could become the latest trend. Doing so would save time and money, while family members could assuage their consciences by requesting a regular parish Mass in the future with the deceased loved one as the announced intention.

Such a shift would carry eternal consequences.

Should funerals become less common, so, too, would our reflection on the four last things—death, judgment, heaven, and hell. It is no secret that for decades many Catholic funerals have appeared more like canonizations, with clergy and laity alike speaking as if the deceased were already living among the choirs of angels. In recent years, some have increasingly used the term “celebration of life” in place of “funeral.” The new nomenclature immediately shifts our focus from praying for the dead, who, Catholics believe, need our help to get to heaven, to thinking happy thoughts about the deceased’s life. This notion cements us deeper into a secular worldview that refuses to see beyond the horizon of this world, or to consider that our actions may have eternal consequences.

Removing the dead body from our presence in church would hasten this shift. A funeral Mass speaks more loudly than a memorial Mass offered for the dead precisely because of the coffin at the foot of the altar: it forces us to consider our own mortality along with the fate of our deceased friend each time we look ahead. The funeral Mass also concludes with the rite of committal and final commendation, poignant prayers that are not included in any other Mass. Hence without the body present, we can easily shift our thoughts to less demanding realities.

Herein lies the sad irony: the Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to make death even more remote from our lives by removing the deceased from our vision. Without a wake for mourning and a funeral for praying, we will pass over the four last things in favor of the one thing we think we can control: this life.

Certainly, the devout will still desire funerals, and less than devout children will arrange them because they think the funeral is “what you do.” But as it becomes more acceptable to pass on having funerals, the consequences for the faithfully departed in purgatory, and for Catholic practice, will be enormous. The less frequently we attend funerals, the less likely we are to pray for the dead and to contemplate our own judgments. Hence our funeral practices are perhaps the most vivid example of the adage lex orandi, lex credendi: the way we pray affects the way we believe, and vice versa.

St. Bernadette repeated to her fellow religious sisters how Mass for the dead was the one gift they needed: “Nothing but the Precious Blood of Jesus applied for them can liberate them” from purgatory. As we reopen Catholic sacramental life in the coming weeks, pastors, funeral directors, and faithful Catholics alike must absolutely insist that Masses for those deprived of funerals be offered, and that traditional funerals be held for any Catholic who dies in the future. The family of the deceased may resist, but our persistence may be the only thing that can help reverse the lex orandi, lex credendi toward Mass and the four last things. At the very least, the souls of the faithfully departed will be eternally grateful.


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About David G. Bonagura, Jr. 2 Articles
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism.

15 Comments

  1. If the truth be known, the Chinese Virus is not the cause of the diminishing importance of the funeral Mass. It’s been 50 years that the “four last things” has taken a back seat in the Church. How often did any of us hear a homily preached on the four last things? The Church has institutionally downplayed the four last things for quite some time now. To no one’s surprise, families dont have funeral Masses and, when they do occur, they oftentimes are occasions to canonize the saintly life of the deceased. Besides, if every goes to heaven, what need is there of a funeral Mass?

  2. To mention communion in the hand as an abuse is to condemn the early church who practiced precisely that for the first at least six centuries. The Apostles:might be offended.

  3. This is a very well thought out reflection by David G. Bonagura, Jr. Thank you David. Everyone must bear the substance of this article in their mind in days to come. The Church must be prepared to address this issue once the storm settles. God Bless all the souls departed.

  4. My 35-year old son passed away in the ICU at the Mayo Clinic after only eight days this past December. We were devastated and of course were sure that he would be coming home to us with some medical and lifestyle changes, but it wasn’t to be. The doctors originally gave him three months (which would have landed his death in the midst of this Virus), so NOW, I see it as God’s blessing to all of us that we were able to be at his deathbed, a wonderful priest came to give him his Last Rights, and we had a funeral Mass for him at our parish. His wife of only six years had converted to Catholicism about six months before their marriage and we all went to Mass together. I thank God that my son was at the foot of the altar at our church. I would not have had it any other way. All his life I made sure he went to dentist appts., doc appts, etc. Why wouldn’t a mother want her child to have the MOST for their eternal soul (the Last Rights and a funeral Mass). Thank God that if he had to go, it was before this Pandemic and we could all be there for him. +JMJ+

  5. Funeral Masses are for the benefit of the living as well as for the deceased, offering comfort and hope amidst deep sorrow. I was always taught that praying for the dead and burying the dead are works of mercy.
    It distresses me to see the Church so quickly and thoroughly surrender to civil authorities and shut down tight. Liquor stores are open. Restaurants do take outs and curb side pick ups. Why could the Church not negotiate at least for limited services – funerals with family and close friends only, not the whole town? And church doors should be unlocked so individuals can visit and pray.
    St. John Henry Newman wrote, “Man has a moral and religious nature, as well as a physical. He has a mind and a soul.” I suspect our religious leaders really don’t believe that, perhaps a vague assent, but not a deeply held conviction. They act like secular men. Rarely, even pre-pandemic did I hear a sermon on the four last things.
    If Catholics do not believe funeral Masses are necessary, perhaps it is due in part to the Church’s failure to act and teach as if the spiritual life matters.

  6. My father died last month during this pandemic. Due to our state’s restrictions, I was panicking that we would not be able to have a funeral Mass. God bless my father’s pastor. We had the most beautiful Mass attended by 8 family members. He permitted us to live stream the Mass for the grandchildren. It was peaceful and uplifting and we would not have done anything less for our Dad’s soul.

  7. you suggest we might not have funerals anymore? If hotspots of the pestilence have to deal with hundreds of deaths daily, I hope priests and bishops celebrate mass for these souls. You categorize unsound catechesis, guitar liturgies, felt banners, goofy windows, and, of course, Holy Communion in the hand. Jesus blessed and broke the bread and gave it to them, most likely the first Christians and the first centuries. The Church approves it, the Church is the Body of Christ, the Church will not be destroyed. I believe the Holy Spirit was at work in the V2, no matter how it is vilified, judged and condemned. The Holy Spirit works in the Church for the salvation of souls. We know that the wicked for two hundred years tried to destroy the church. We also know that they seized the opportunity after V2 to cause a lot of damage combined with all the great temptations of this present world. The wicked succeeded even to elect “their man” as Pope to make it a global, communist, all religion fake church. Just look at Pope Francis Easter Candle at his guest house chapel, it bears his Argentina Cardinal code of arms with the five pointed star. Praise be to Jesus Christ the light of the world for ever and ever.

  8. I am 70+ years old, so I am attending lots of funeral Masses. Most of the children & grandchildren at these Masses don’t know when to sit, or kneel or any of the responses of the Mass. They are attending because they feel they have to! When they die they will not specify having a Mass or Christen burial.

  9. Retire “celebrations of life”, please. Ditto “canonizations” by PRIESTS. Limit eulogies (if you must have them).

  10. I firmly believe that memorials and Masses can be allowed with the following reasonable adjustments. If a viewing is desired at a funeral home a limit can be made that accomodate the family members and others if the number of visitors is limited. The same may be applied to the funeral Mass at the church.

    As with cost, cremation may be an option.

  11. Rethinking the grave issue is a long felt need. Indeed, offering a respectful farewell to those going ahead of us is a must. But the ground realities are such, that in certain parts of the world, there is no more land left for graveyards. Populations keep growing, graveyards keep shrinking. The housing needs for the living and land for growing food keep mounting. The idea of holding on to our privileged position in life and death, needs revisiting.

  12. This is a very good article. As with so many problems in the Church, I lay the blame primarily at the feet of the bishops and priests. They are the ones who have allowed eulogies, instant canonizations, language that does not reflect authentic Catholic thought or practice, i.e. Celebration of life, words such as, our “mother is now in heaven with our dad”, etc. This is aided and abetted by music that is not what we would call “funeral music,” white vestments that should be worn at Easter and Christmas, and an overemphasis on the Resurrection to the detriment of praying for the soul of the deceased.
    As with so many of the other problems in the Church, I don’t see anyone within the Church, showing any concern for what has happened. See you at the “Celebration of life.”

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