I was recently asked by the Archdiocese of Washington to lead a workshop for catechists that focused on the catechetical teachings implicit in the funeral rites of the Church. At first, I was somewhat surprised at the request. It didn’t strike me as the first sort of topic that one might speak about when speaking to catechists.

But quickly, I warmed to the topic. I have long held that the way in which we conduct ourselves at funerals, in the manner of preaching and other visible attitudes, not only teaches poorly, but is often a countersign of biblical and Church teaching on death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

The rites themselves are not flawed (though the huge number of readings can bewilder and are not of equal value or helpfulness). Rather, a whole host of problems both sociological, and related to liturgical execution, create an environment that not only obscure Catholic teaching on death, but often outright contradicts it.

In this particular blog post, I would like to lay out what I think are some of the problematic issues that surround typical funerals today. And in tomorrow’s post I would like to lay out an outline of a typical funeral sermon I preach in which I seek to remedy some of the misunderstandings that are common today.

So for today here are some problematic issues and attitudes that tend to surround funerals. I do not say that every family or parish exhibits all these problems, only that these are common in various combinations and degrees.

1. 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.

2. Most families and funerals miss a step. Upon the death of a loved one there are often instant declarations that “they are in heaven.” Perhaps there are other euphemisms such as “He is in a better place…” or “She’s gone home.”

Of course such judgments are grossly presumptive and in making such declarations, people sit in the judgment seat that belongs only to Jesus. If I were to say, “Uncle Joe is in Hell” people would be rightly angry and say I was being “judgmental.” But of course those who say “Joe is in heaven” sit in the very same judgement seat and are also being “judgmental.”

Further the scriptures don’t teach that people, even believers, die and go straight to heaven. No, there is little pit stop first, an appointment to keep. The scriptures say,

  1. It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27)
  2. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor 5:10)
  3. Always speak and act as those who are going to be judged under the law of liberty. (James 2:13)

Thus instant promotions of the deceased to the upper realms of heaven are inappropriate. Rather, we give them to the Lord with our prayers, asking for a merciful and kindly judgment, and that any necessary purification be accomplished soon.  The prayers for, and comments about the deceased can include gratitude for their life and the gifts they brought, but ought never to fail to mention that they go to judgment and should not gloss over the need to pray for them, more than praise them.

3. Purgatory and the concept of purification after death are almost never mentioned, but they should be. But of course purgatory is the likely destination of most of the dead for at least some purification after death.

The whole point of praying for the dead at all is purgatory! If the dead are in heaven they don’t need our prayers. Sadly, if they are in Hell, they can’t use them. It is those in purgatory that both need and can use our prayers.

Jesus says, You must be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect. (Mat 5:41). This is a promise, not a threat. And St. Paul says, May God who has begun a good work in you bring it to completion. (Phil 1:16)

Most of us know, if we were to die today, that we are not perfect, and that God’s work in us is not complete. Purgatory just makes sense, and clergy ought not be so reticent to preach it clearly at a funeral. We are not just here to pray for the family, we are here to pray for the deceased because they have gone to judgment. And even if the judgment isn’t for Hell (thanks be to God), there is likely some finishing work needed, some purgation, and our prayers make a difference. More on this tomorrow.

4. 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 follow Jesus 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 or 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.

It is generally agreed that things are out of balance most Catholic funerals. Our silence about important matters, such as judgment, purgatory and a proper preparation for death makes a good deal of what we do unintelligible. Why are we offering Mass? Why do many of our prayers ask mercy and beseech the Lord to received our deceased into heaven? If its all certain and even a done deal (since Joe is already “in a better place”) why do any of this at all?

The priest should surely speak with confidence to the love and mercy of God and assure the family in this regard, especially if the deceased had faith. The Lord Jesus loves sinners and died for us. Surely he will have mercy, if it is sought.

But God’s mercy cannot be preached without any reference to human freedom and choice. Neither can judgment be understood  without any reference to the promise of perfection and the need for it before we can enter heaven. Scripture says regarding heaven, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27) and describes the denizens of heaven as the spirits of the righteous made perfect (Heb 12:23). And we are admonished, Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14).

All of these notions must balance and frame our discussion of mercy and the confident hope that we can give our loved ones back to God.

But too many Catholic funerals lack this this balance. And this lack is on the part of both the families who often speak of salvation without reference to judgement, grace or mercy, and the clergy who often fail to preach in a way that sets forth a clear teaching on death, judgment, Heaven, (purgatory) and Hell.

Tomorrow I would like to publish a sermon typical of what I preach at sermons, that does, if I do say so myself, try to articulate theme themes. More then.


128 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    Thank-you for addressing this subject. There was also this recent blog on cremation, http://www.catholicuniversebulletin.org/THEOLOGY13/theology1.php, which I have seen abused. At my brothers “memorial service” his cremated remains were distributed in small glass vials and people were encouraged to spread his ashes in his favorite places. Can you imagine handing out body parts and doing the same thing?

  2. Jerry says:

    Your funeral Mass homily today was a catechetical masterpiece! Thank you for your service to God’s people. I hope to meet more “cold SOBs” like you on the other side of this life. :)

  3. Jack says:

    Thank you, Monsignor. We really appreciate your message, especially after going to two funerals this last weekend where the “remembrances” went on and on, and then the deceased was canonized! This has long been one of our favorite complaints. We would appreciate some suggested readings, having heard the full gamut. And I am so tired of hearing “On Eagles Wings!” Loved the recordings you posted. I m planning a black Requiem Mass for myself (if my wishes are followed).

  4. @fmshyanguya says:

    Msgr. Pope, Fr. Wilson and Fr. George, may G_d bless you and your ministry.
    To Msgr.’s point of taking into account the whole of Scripture:
    Cf. Lk 13: 1-5 Examples inviting repentance (after death has occurred) from the LORD himself:
    “It was just about this time that some people arrived and told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with that of their sacrifices. At this he said to them, ‘Do you suppose these Galileans who suffered like that were greater sinners than any other Galileans? They were not, I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did. Or the eighteen on whom the tower at Siloam fell and killed them? Do you suppose that they were more guilty than all the other people living in Jerusalem? They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.'”

    My thinking is that much harm is done, especially to the young, when Uncle Joe is ‘instantly canonized’ when it is known by those present that his Sunday Football took the place Mass and family. And how beneficial and sobering when a priest speaking the truth in charity courageously states that Uncle Joe, a sinner like us, has met his judgment (we too will and we do not know when), and that we should pray for him and entrust him to G_d’s mercy, and the occasion of his death is a G_d given (like the Gospel quote above) opportunity for us examine our lives and…repent!

    Msgr. Pope and Fr. Wilson, please pray for me and my family.

  5. Rev. Stewart Schneider says:

    Of all the things I do pastorally, I am convinced that I do funerals the worst. The Monsignor’s words are more than instructive, but I cannot divorce myself from the grief of the family and the need to minister to it.

    I attended a Baptist funeral for a suicide once in which the pastor looked at the grieving widow and told her, “Of course we know where Bill is now, but we hope you can be saved.” A teaching, but inappropriate.

    I’m looking forward to reading the Monsignor’s Sermon tomorrow. I am really interested.

  6. Bill Foley says:

    Great article, Monsignor! When my wife died, I asked the priest to please mention purgatory and to ask the people to pray for her.

    I am still waiting to attend a funeral that has the three essentials: (1) comfort the sorrowing; (2) explain purgatory and ask for prayers for the deceased; (3) remind the congregation about the last things, which they will have to face some day.

  7. LizEst says:

    Thank you, Monsignor Pope. Our pastor also puts the “words of remembrance” before the Mass. It’s a great place for them…they tend to be appropriate and also stay within the time guidelines. I wish all did it that way. No liturgical complaints about the way he runs things.

    More need to know that the funeral Mass is intended for the soul of the deceased. I’ve even heard a priest (not in our parish anymore) say it is for the family. Ugh! Yes, it’s important to show mercy and compassion. But, ugh! Can we get rid of the term “celebration of life” from our obituary write-ups? That’s part of the problem right there, fostered by those who have no sense of why we come together to pray and little sense of a life after death.

    Thank you…and God bless you! And, Happy Veteran’s Day to all who have served and sacrificed for our country.

  8. JohnR says:

    I have long said that I want a sung requiem at my funeral. Somehow I don’t think that will happen. I always remember singing a full requiem Mass for Pope Pius XII. I was in a seminary then and it really moved me. Of course, it goes without saying that this was a Latin Mass and the priest, deacon and sub-deacon all wore black. This was a proper requiem and the words are beautiful. I was receiving organ lessons then as well and my teacher informed me that the plainsong of that Mass is some of the earliest which we have and goes back to North Africa in about the second century. If you look at it, it is so simple, and this bears out the claim that it is of very early composition.
    You may also gather that I am one of those who did not complete my seminary training! I am one of the pre-Vatican II seminarians.
    Another thought though….a friend of mine was in the last stages of cancer and I said to him at the time “Kevin, you are bearing up so very well” and his reply was “John, I’m in a state of grace, what have I to fear?!”

  9. anniem says:

    OH, how this is so much needed. Msgr. Pope. I just returned from the funeral of a youngish man, son of a friend. No one in the family knew where he was for a year before he died, because he was an alcoholic and could never conquer that addiction. The presiding priest at the Mass offered some words of comfort, in effect saying that the Lord had called him home because the poor man had suffered enough. At least he did not canonize him, which is what happens at every deacon’s funeral in this diocese. So-and-so is now with the Lord, enjoying all the happiness he deserved as a good deacon. At one funeral each of the grandchildren brought up a hat at the Offertory Procession to represent what their Grandpa (deacon) liked or did in his life. Ten in all. The Church was recently rebuilt after a fire, and it looked like a Mormon meeting house…as I can only imagine as I have never been in one. Everything was on the diagonal, including the unrecognizable chapel chapel to the rear of the altar. I could add many paragraphs about the choice of English hymns, especially from OCP. And pianos-no organ music allowed. We need to pray for our Church that we get back to reverence; we may end up with two Churches: the American Catholic church and the Roman Catholic Church, the one that listens to Rome and values real sacred music at all the liturgies. We will either have a Requiem High Mass or…

  10. dominic1955 says:

    Msgr. Pope,

    All of the points you make in this post are correct. I’m in the funeral business, and I will tell you, I would NOT be in the funeral business if I had to sit through every one of these banal “celebration of life” things that pass for a “funeral”-we usually end up hanging out somewhere else until its “our turn”.

    Anyway, what I also find striking is that we have the anecdote to this nonsense in our liturgical quiver-the old Requiem Mass! Honestly, it is like the perfect type of wrench in the exact right size and the serviceman (i.e. the Church) is trying to make a go with about anything BUT the right tool! Its profoundly silly, like New Coke. Read through the text of the traditional Requiem and the points you make are right there, liturgically. The black (and violet for the tabernacle/altar frontal), the unbleached candles, the Dies Irae, the various other additions and subtractions as compared to a regular Mass all make the exact point you’re making.

    I know you are not opposed to the TLM, rather, I’m saying this for the Western Church at large. The general malaise we see at most Catholic funerals these days, I would say, is the direct result of the liturgical change from the old Requiem Mass to the “Mass of Christian Burial”.

    It is true, the NO can be made to be quite similar to the old Requiem (black vestments, use of the Introit which is the “Requiem aeternam…”) but those are about as rare as hen’s teeth and dependent solely on the good liturgical practice of the individual priest. Fr. A might do a bang up job saying the NO in line with Catholic liturgical tradition but down the street Fr. B has the same ol’ mini-canonization service that most Catholic funerals end up being.

  11. David L Alexander says:

    When I handled the funeral arrangements for my Dad a while back, I spent several minutes explaining to the music director why “In Paradisum” was the appropriate choice for recessing out, even though the cantor would sing it, and everyone else would have to listen. such being a foreign concept to her. I got what I asked for, but it helps to be a pushy guy — and to do some homework.

    Most people whose loved ones has died are given a sheet of hymn selections (most of the ones in my case were inappropriate, some were even theologically unsound), and guidance from people who are themselves very ill-informed. It is not hard to imagine why most funerals are a “celebration of life.”

  12. Brigit Barnes says:

    Thank you Father. That is why my will explicitly states that the funeral be performed by Priests of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, who will not muck it up, and provides enough cash for 30 days of Masses for my soul. I am under no illusions that i will be canonized before I am cold. If family and friends want to have an Irish wake afterward and get plastered that is all fine and good– but my funeral is the time for DeProfundis.

  13. Annette Strachan says:

    We.know where there is good there is evil; could the next image be another choice please. Some saving grace,
    Maybe. Thanks. We all need it.

  14. Cindy says:

    Dear Msgr. Pope, I read your blog gratefully as a catechist and am happy to tell you that the link came from one of the priests of my parish. Thank you for educating me! In addition to your blog, I have benefited from reading the many thoughtful comments.

    Sad to say, a lot in your article were things I never knew or had never considered. Not to pat myself on the back, I have 2 certificates in church ministry (1 from Education for Parish Service there in DC and another here in my current AD Phila) and have tried in many more ways to constantly build my knowledge of our Faith. I am embarassed how little I had known/considered about funeral Masses and wonder how little the average parishioner (no less inactive Catholic) knows. The way you explained it made total sense. But I foresee a lot of catechesis from parish priests when a family come to them to celebrate a funeral Mass. I have been to so many funerals that were “canonizations” and typically people always do speak of the newly dead is “being in a better place” with no mention of purgatory or why we need to pray for the dead. You hit that nail squarely on the head!

  15. Donna L. says:

    Excellent.

  16. sylvia kordish says:

    A post on appropriate music at Catholic funerals sounds like a good idea. I have been an organist and cantor for thirty+ years, and I dearly love my ministry,but most times I am handed a sheet of paper with a list of requested hymns and no discussion of appropriate selections or placement…………sadly I see some people who seem to think they can customize a liturgy…………like using a hymn as the memorial acclamation !!!!!!! I never comply but often never get the opportunity to explain why this is not possible. Thank you Msgr. Pope for all your posts and God Bless YOU !!! BTW, although this subject matter is serious, after reading a few of the many and lengthy posts, I offered a prayer up for you !!! Hope you didn’t sustain too many bruises !!!

  17. Colette says:

    Thank you Msgr Pope…just Thank you! Beautiful column! I have forwarded this to my husband and children so that they know what I want at my own funeral (I’m only 48, but we must be always ready, correct?)

  18. Craig says:

    Thank you, Monsignor, for true Charity towards all.

  19. Jennifer says:

    Thank you.

    What about funerals for very young, baptized Catholics? Would it be appropriate to speak of the little ones as being in heaven? If so, up to what age?

    When my Gabriel died (age 2) an elderly priest told us that we have the unique honor of being the parents of a new saint. We tend to be very theologically minded, so the comment really struck us. He went on to suggest that we ask Gabriel to intercede for us.

    • dominic1955 says:

      In the old days, a baptized child who died before the age of reason (~7 yrs. old) had the Missa de Angelis said instead of the Requiem Mass because, as your priest said, the child would necessarily be a saint. Not in the formal canonized sense, but by logical necessity. Baptism removed Original Sin and a person who does not have full use of reason cannot commit a personal sin. Thus, without either-sainthood. They would be dressed in white and crowned with a wreath of flowers or something similar to symbolize their status. I’ve been to one such funeral, it was quite beautiful.

  20. Michael Marsili says:

    This was a much needed article. As one studying to be a Catholic Deacon, this aspect of the ministry is a little intimidating to me. I truly want to walk the line with respect to the family and friends and still remain true to the faith and tradition of the Catholic Church. The priest at our parish does a wonderful job of calling ones attention to the mercy of God, the need for prayers for the dead and the reasons for hope. He never misses an opportunity to teach not only the Catholics in attendance but also those outside the faith. Thank you so much.

  21. Andrew Bloomfield says:

    Perhaps this is why I’ve always been struck by the profundity of the black vestments and formality of the Extraordinary Form expression of the Requiem Mass. That, and the final words of the Dies Irae: “That tearful day upon which guilty man arises from ashes unto judgment: spare him, therefore, O God; Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest.”
    It’s impossible to miss the necessity of intercession for the faithful departed — and for ourselves — and to exercise the virtue of hope. Thanks for the great article!

    • ric says:

      Its warm and dark on the other side. You are in the presense of Christ. When given the command to open your eyes, you will receive one of two instructions: “Come, enter into the home of My Father”, or “Away from me evildoer, for I never knew you.” My message was clear. Stop sinning, and live the Beatitudes. It was that simple.My ministry is now clear. The Holy Spirit told me that He will bring others to me and I am to bring them to Him…

  22. Rebecca says:

    Msgr. Pope,
    Thank you for the informative blog regarding funerals in the Catholic Church. This blog is very helpful.

  23. Pete McNesbitt says:

    With a very recent death of an aunt, this seemed a little off the mark today and yet I know she would agree with the sentiment of the article completely. When I die, I’ve already mentioned to my nieces and nephews that I would really like them to pay an extra fifty dollars for extra incense. As a former altar boy, I really love the smell and texture and significance of the incensing the remains. Casket will probably be optional as I plan on donating my remains to a medical school.

  24. Matt says:

    Great post! I hope to hear a good funeral homily some day in my life.

  25. Germain Grisez says:

    What Father Pope says about funerals seems to me sound, and I wish every bishop would teach his priests these things.

    Still, it seems to me that the sample homily is far too long. I don’t think a good homily (in the wealthier nations of the world) exceeds 1,000 words–ever. With the media forming people’s expectations about communications in general, their attention span has shrunk. No matter how well formulated and delivered a homily is, it will fail for those who quit listening, and they are likely to need it most.

    • Thanks. As for length, there are cultural variances as to what is a “good” homily. In my parish setting (African American), homilies are longer. This particular homily came in at 20 min, live. That’s about average for a funeral. Sunday Homilies are closer to 30 min. At Sung Latin Requiems esp. with polyphony, the overall format is longer as well since the propers, esp the libera, + Dies Irae etc go on for some time. People who ask for this form know the format is longer. Of course even in situations where length is more accepted, it is not length per se, but length plus content that is desired. But that’s my real point, good does not equal short or long. Content is the essential matter. Short = good is a value in some settings, but not all. Also, in presenting this material I realize that everyone must adapt it for their setting. I am privileged to preach mainly among those who appreciate longer and rich fare at the homily moment. For those not so lucky some of this material could be selected or shortened.

  26. Nicholas L. Rosal STD, PHL, MSJ says:

    An excellent pastoral piece every Catholic Bishop should distribute to their clergy.

  27. Abram Muljana says:

    Well.
    I don’t believe in day of judgement or purgatory. I am deeply Agnostic (and a former Catholic).
    BUT.
    It is absolutely true that a Requiem is performed to prepare the deceased for the next journey. It’s not an auto biography. For that you need an editor, not a priest and his acolytes.
    The many ‘kumbaya’ style, loosy-goosy funeral service performed these days are not only tacky but also useless (for the purpose of praying).
    If we want to be sincere with the structure of the ‘new’ Pauline Mass, there is no place in the ‘Missa in commemoratione Onmiun Defunctorum’ a family member should speak. If one can sing properly, may be he or she can perform a few verses from Dies Irae. That’s it!

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