Now that the coronavirus is turning people’s lives upside down, we have become increasingly preoccupied with funerals, including our own. Sadly, many families have found themselves unable to approach a dying relative, let alone hug them, comfort them or even say goodbye.
In New York undertakers have been driven to ask their clients to provide cardboard boxes for their deceased loved ones rather than a dignified wooden coffin. In this way bodies can be cremated more quickly, thereby reducing the backlog in demand. Refrigerated trucks have been used as temporary morgues.
Things are not so desperate in Australia, where I come from. There are practices, however, some distasteful, some highly commendable, which give us food for thought.
One of our leading funeral directors regularly advertises in these terms: “When your life’s hard work has rewarded you well, it’s only customary to want the best.” An appeal to snobbery if ever there was one. Strangely, however, this firm has a separate and special clientele: it is entrusted with the funerals of practically all the members of the Catholic clergy and religious orders in our archdiocese, people who embraced poverty all their lives.
By contrast, Holy Cross Funerals, while it caters for all denominations, describes itself as “a not-for-profit apostolate of the Catholic Church”. It professes a vision “to bring people back to the Church”. It endeavours to work closely with parishes and their communities, to which it disburses funds after expenses have been met. Regrettably, however, a perusal of funeral notices in the local press indicates that they receive much less business than the firm described above. The cause could be less effective advertising, an excessively Catholic image, a problematic location (twenty kilometres from the city) or a lack of time to establish a tradition (twenty-one years as opposed to over a century for its rival). Time will tell.
Putting aside the extremes, it is important to consider what makes a Catholic funeral different from others. It should be seen as a celebration of life and not just the deceased’s life. It is a way of giving praise and thanks that the person has been enveloped by the life-giving love of God.
Many are surprised and annoyed that the Church is opposed to the traditional kind of eulogy, preferring a brief homily based on the readings and perhaps a few words of remembrance of the deceased before the final commendation. Unfortunately, many a eulogy turns into a hagiography.
Symbols such as an Easter candle, a bible or a crucifix may be placed in or near the coffin. Reminders of the deceased’s hobbies and pastimes are best placed near the entrance to the Church.
Music is important. A recent survey of people’s choices turned up favourites such as "My Way", football club songs, Bette Midler’s version of "Wind Beneath My Wings" and the bane of all organists, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, a victim of its own popularity. Music should be an essential part of the Paschal mystery which is being celebrated and so unify those present in faith and love.
These are dangerous times. PAPA’s one million Hail Marys will mitigate the danger. The concluding prayer of the Divine Chaplet of Mercy, “Eternal God, in whom Mercy is endless…”, will ease our fears.