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.