Funeral Policy - Diocese of Bathurst
THE CELEBRATION OF FUNERALS IN THE DIOCESE OF BATHURST
When one of us dies, there is a basic human response to gather in grief, seeking the consolation of family and friends, supporting by our presence those who grieve the most. The customs and rituals we develop organise this kindly intent into words and actions that bind us together as a community of mourning.
The local Catholic community, called to be the presence of Christ, brings his love to those who suffer loss in this moment. We also mourn in hope, believing in God’s promise of mercy and resurrection for the one who has died. As Christians, we are both ministers of consolation and ministers of the Gospel. Properly understood, these ministries will not be in competition, because they do in fact need each other. Neither should be forgotten or neglected.
Our funeral rites are, at their heart, an act of worship to God, the giver of life, who has made us to dwell eternally with him.
In this document, I will first outline the reasons and purposes for our celebration of funeral rites, then give some practical applications to guide how we organise them in our local church.
Why we celebrate funerals
The first reason, as indicated in the introduction, is to gather in mutual support and prayer as we grieve the loss of one who has died. This gathering is not restricted to the funeral rites, but also includes our loving presence to one another from the time of the death and through the weeks and months that follow
The circumstances and the impact of every death are different; and the practical help we may offer, as well as the words we choose, will differ too; but the simple gift of our presence at the funeral and in other times is always valuable.
Our gathering includes remembering the person we have lost. Their absence now is real, but so too are our memories; and so too is the endurance of the good they have done. In St Mary MacKillop’s words, “Gratitude is the memory of the heart.” As Christians, we are content not merely to list the virtues and achievements of the departed, but to see God at work in their life and, through them, in ours.
These memories are not always happy. A death can bring into focus relationships, both with the deceased and among their family and others, that need reconciliation and healing. This is not achieved simply and quickly, but we do what we can, when we can, in patience and hope. We humbly acknowledge that none of us can gain salvation by our own efforts, but only through the mercy of God.
We pray for the one who has died. Our Catholic faith tells us that they are not beyond the reach of our prayers, nor we of theirs. We do not pretend to know the ways of God, in time and out of time, in forgiving sins and raising the dead to life, but our prayers for the dead are both a duty and a consolation for us. This is also a deep and effective way of seeking reconciliation and healing when someone has died before they forgave us or we forgave them.
This prayer is most perfectly expressed in the Eucharist. As the then Cardinal Ratzinger expressed it: “We know that the souls of those who have died are alive in the resurrected body of the Lord. The Lord’s body shelters them and carries them towards the common resurrection. In this body which we are permitted to receive, we remain close to one another and we touch each other.”
We pray for the gift of faith, in the first place for those who are suffering the loss and absence of someone who has been part of their lives on earth. The Lord, who wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, is especially close to those who suffer. More than that, he himself has experienced the reality of death and is the one who can lead us out of it. This is a moment of grace for those who mourn: to renew, strengthen or even discover the assurance of this closeness and the belief that death does not have the final word.
We also pray for our own faith. When one of us dies, we are reminded that our own turn will come too, sooner or later. When contemplating the destiny of those who have gone before us, we ponder our own destiny and seek a deeper faith in Jesus Christ as the one whose victory over sin and death can lead us to eternal life.
These directions are to be read in conjunction with the attached Order of Christian Funerals (OCF) and applied faithfully and sensitively,
avoiding both negligent and legalistic interpretations.
a) Every parish should develop (or continue to develop) a group of suitably formed people to assist the parish priest in ministering to the bereaved. In addition to helping prepare and celebrate the funeral rites, they would be available to offer support over the longer term, as needed (OCF 8-13).
b) The priest and his team are to be sensitive to the different needs that families may have in planning the funeral. These could be cultural, for example with aboriginal or immigrant families; or simply because those planning the funeral are unfamiliar with church ceremonies (OCF 16-17).
c) No eulogy is to be given during a Funeral Mass or Liturgy (OCF 27). However, one brief remembrance obituary may be delivered immediately before or after. This should not be done from the Ambo, unless the practicalities of the church building do not allow for another suitable location.
The priest and his team can help the bereaved to collaborate with one another in writing the obituary, and in choosing the most appropriate person to read it out. Should there be a request for multiple obituaries and speakers, this may be accommodated at other times, such as the burial or cremation, a vigil service the night before, or at the gathering of family and friends after the funeral rites.
Similarly, presentations such as PowerPoints etc. are not to be shown during the liturgy. The best times for these are when the congregation gathers before the service begins, or at the gathering of family and friends after the funeral rites.
d) Only Christian symbols (the Pall, a Bible, Crucifix etc.) may be placed on the coffin. Other mementoes, including a photograph of the departed, may be placed with due dignity on a table to one side of the area in front of the sanctuary (OCF 38).
a) Sometimes, for sound pastoral reasons, the funeral rites do not include the celebration of Mass. Our parishes have the worthy custom of praying for those who have died that week in the Prayer of the Faithful at Sunday Mass. I would also ask that one of the weekday Masses be offered for those who have died recently. In smaller parishes, this may not be so frequent; in larger parishes, one Mass could be offered for several departed. The families should be informed of this and encouraged to attend.
b) The availability of the Sacrament of Penance, in the period before or after the funeral, can be an important part of the work of reconciliation (OCF 13).
Our mission as the Church is to proclaim that the Son of God became fully human, suffering sin and death and defeating them. Our humanity, joined to his, can claim this victory and share in his divine life, beginning now, to be perfected in the resurrection of the body.
All who mourn have a right to hear this loving message of reconciliation and hope. And we have a responsibility as Christians to find ways to communicate it. We can only communicate what we understand: all involved in funeral ministry need constantly to deepen their knowledge of the richness of our faith and teachings.
The readings from scripture, the prayers of the Liturgy and suitable hymns express this faith. The words of the priest or minister, especially in the homily, can bring them to bear on particular circumstances, tailored to each congregation, but never obscuring the clear beauty of the Gospel.
For this reason, is important to guard against funeral rites becoming overloaded with secular writings and songs (OCF 23, 30-32). Some are of good quality and can enhance prayer and reflection when properly placed in the service; others can be trite and distracting and should be discouraged; those that are contrary to Christian faith should of course be excluded.
The arrangements for Catholic funerals are ultimately the responsibility of the Parish Priest of the place where they are celebrated.
Should priests from outside the Diocese of Bathurst wish to take part, either presiding or as concelebrants, the Parish Priest is to ensure that they have complied with the necessary professional standards requirements.
At the rite of final commendation and farewell, the community acknowledges the reality of separation and commends the deceased to God. In this way it recognises the spiritual bond that still exists between the living and the dead and proclaims its belief that all the faithful will be raised up and reunited in the new heavens and a new earth, where death will be no more (OCF 7).
+ Michael McKenna
Bishop of Bathurst