Funeral Foibles – Problems in the Celebration of Catholic Funerals

blog11-14In this month of All Souls, it is good to reflect on funerals. It concerns me that very few people today seem to understand the real purpose of a funeral. The way in which we conduct ourselves at funerals, the manner of preaching at funerals, and other visible attitudes expressed at funerals not only teach poorly, but are often a countersign of biblical and Church teaching on death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

There are many problems, both sociological, and liturgical, that combine to create an environment that not only obscures Catholic teaching on death, but often outright contradicts it.

In today’s post, I would like to lay out what I think are some of the issues that surround typical funerals today. I do not claim that every family or parish exhibits all or even any of these problems, only that they are common.

1. There is basic confusion about the purpose of a funeral. Many people arrive at the parish to plan a funeral, presuming that the funeral should be all about “Uncle Joe,” who he was, what he liked, etc. This leads to a series of requests, some of them inappropriate. For example,

  1. Uncle Joe’s favorite song was My Way, so we want a soloist to sing it at the funeral.
  2. Uncle Joe had three favorite nieces who would each like to speak after Communion to say “a few words” about what a great uncle he was.
  3. Uncle Joe was a big football fan; he never missed a game. So we’d like to have flowers in the team colors and a football displayed on a table near the altar. We received a letter from the team’s front office and we’d like to have it read in tribute after Communion (after the nieces).
  4. Father, in your sermon please remember to mention Joe’s great concern for such-and-such cause. Oh, and don’t forget to mention that he was a founding member here at St. Esmerelda’s and was the president of the parish men’s club.

Well, you get the point. Of course none of this is the real purpose of a funeral at all. Like any celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, the Funeral Mass is primarily for 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, inviting prayer for the judgment he faces and for his 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. Uncle Joe needs prayer more than he needs praise. Whatever gifts he did have were from God. God should be thanked and praised for them.

Too many funerals focus on man, not God. Too many funerals focus on human achievements rather than the need for grace, mercy, and gratitude for all that has been received.

As a practical matter, in my parish we do not allow relatives or friends to speak during the Funeral Mass. If someone wants to say a few words, it is done before Mass starts. Once the Funeral Mass begins, though, it is the Mass and only the Mass.

2. A step is skipped at most funerals. Upon the death of a loved one there is often the instant declaration that “He’s in Heaven now.” Sometimes it’s worded a little differently: “She’s in a better place” or “He’s gone home.”

Of course such statements are grossly presumptive and in making such declarations, people attempt to sit in the judgment seat that belongs only to Jesus. If I were to say, “Uncle Joe is in Hell now,” people would be justifiably angry and accuse me of being “judgmental.” But of course those who say “Uncle Joe is in Heaven now” are doing the very same thing.

Further, Scripture doesn’t teach that people, even believers, die and go straight to Heaven. No, there is little “pit stop” first, an appointment to keep. Scripture says,

  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 promotion of the deceased to the realm of Heaven is inappropriate. Instead, we should 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 we should never to fail to mention that the deceased goes to judgment and that we should pray for them, more than praise them.

3. Purgatory and the concept of purification after death are rarely mentioned at funerals, but should be. 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 is Purgatory! If the dead are in Heaven, then they don’t need our prayers. Sadly, if they are in Hell, they can’t use them either. It is those in Purgatory who both need and can use our prayers.

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

Most of us know that we are not perfect and that God’s work in us in not complete. If we were to die today, God would still have some work to do in us. Purgatory just makes sense; clergy ought not to be so hesitant to preach it clearly, particularly at funerals. We are not just here to pray for the family; we are here to pray for the deceased because he or she has gone to judgment. Even if the judgment isn’t for Hell (thanks be to God), there is almost certainly some finishing work needed, some purgation; our prayers make a difference in this regard.

4. The immediate family should not be 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 minister only to them. Present at most funerals (in great abundance, frankly) are many who are unchurched and need to be called to Jesus. Often some of these people are in the immediately family of the deceased.

Clergy should not let this opportunity pass. The only time many of us see a lot of these people is at funerals. Waiting for “another time” to call them to repentance and to follow Jesus should not be an option. They are here now and must be called now.

At the Funeral Mass we clergy should seek 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 the overwhelming majority of attendees at funerals are in 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. Many are in very serious and unrepentant mortal sin.

To have that many lost souls at a funeral and to say nothing at all to them about the need to repent and call on Jesus, is downright malpractice on the part of the clergy. Whether they like it or not, priests are watchmen for the house of Israel. They must go on ahead of the Judge to 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. On 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 into the practice of the faith a number of people as a result of such preaching.

We must minster to everyone at funerals. They are moments that are pregnant with meaning and possibilities. They are evangelical opportunities.

It is generally agreed that things are out of balance at most Catholic funerals. Our silence about important matters such as judgment, Purgatory, and 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 for mercy and beseech the Lord to received our deceased loved one into Heaven? If it’s all certain and perhaps even a done deal (e.g., Joe is already “in a better place”) why do we do any of this at all?

The priest should surely speak with confidence about the love and mercy of God, assuring 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 on those who seek it.

But God’s mercy cannot be preached without reference to human freedom and choice. Neither can judgment be understood without reference to the promise of perfection and the need for it before we can enter Heaven. Regarding Heaven, Scripture says, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27). The denizens of Heaven are described 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 balance. 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.

On Wednesday I will post a sermon typical of what I preach at funerals. If I do say so myself, it tries to articulate all of these themes.

13 Replies to “Funeral Foibles – Problems in the Celebration of Catholic Funerals”

  1. I am appalled that so the priests nowadays are very lukewarm. You hardly find a priest who says it as it is. It’s like they are more worried about keeping the parishioners happy and tickling their ears instead of warning them that time is of the essence, time is running out, and sooner or later we will give an account of our life. They don’t emphasize or talk about the reality of Hell, the importance of frequent confession and communion, devotional practices like the rosary, the liturgy of the hours, reading the bible on a daily basis and fleeing from all type of sexual immorality starting by turning off the damn tv.
    Quite honestly some priests seem to say mass because they have to, but they are not zealous, they do not thirst for souls, they do not behave like shepherds that love their sheep. They are not responsive and most of them don’t even prepare the homily. Our Lady of Fatima did mention that many priests and bishops are going to hell and taking many souls with them.
    People need to hear the truth. Priests need to buckle up and leave their cowardice in the closet. If God called you to be a priest then say it as it is. Too bad if people don’t like it. Many souls are on their way to hell because the great sin of omission is what takes them there. There is no one who cares. There is no one who will inform them of the grave danger their soul is in.

    1. What a great post.
      Unfortunately, you are right…and it is so, so sad. I am buoyed by Msgr’s article…as I usually am. I pray that more Priests will become as faithful.
      We are fortunate here in Chesapeake, VA to have St Benedict’s Parish…TLM, daily Confessions, and Priests who are faithful Shepherds that give it to us straight…painfully straight sometimes.
      Maybe you can find one in your local area.
      In the meantime, let’s continue to pray for Holy, Mother Church…and for our Priests.

      Blessings…and keep the Faith!!!!

  2. I do so agree with all you have said above. I still remember a sung requiem (in Latin, of course) when I was a seminarian, for Pope Pius XII and I would love my own funeral to be just the same but somehow I don’t think that will happen. I can still hear, in my mind’s eye, “In Paradisum deducant te angeli…” and I would so hope that such would be the case but I know full well that I will have to face judgement. It is so true that nothing imperfect may enter heaven and I will leave instructions for my sons that there will be no eulogy, as goes on at all the funerals now, and that my funeral is to be focussed on praying for me to be made perfect in order for me to be fitted for heaven.

  3. The traditional Offertory chant from the Mass for the Dead, aka Requiem Mass, sums up perfectly the purpose of the funeral Mass:
    O Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory, deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the pains of Hell and the bottomless pit:
    Deliver them from the jaws of the lion, lest hell engulf them, lest they be plunged into darkness;
    but let the holy standard-bearer Michael lead them into that holy light, which You once promised to Abraham and to his seed.
    Lord, in praise we offer to You sacrifices and prayers; accept them on behalf of those who we remember this day:
    Lord, make them pass from death to life.
    Which You once promised to Abraham and to his seed.
    On YouTube:

  4. Thank you for this post. I look forward to your next post of a typical funeral sermon. I work in a hospital and we often use similar, inaccurate terms when talking about the deceased. Instead of “he’s gone to a better place”, perhaps we should start saying something like “he’s gone to meet his Maker”.
    I think if folks realize the journey may not actually be over with and that our deceased loved one still needs our prayers, or especially needs our prayers, it could be a significant tool to bring family & friends closer to God by enlisting their help with ongoing prayer for his soul.

  5. Thank you, Msgr. Pope, for this fine and informative article. I do hope that it will get widespread coverage.
    God bless you!

  6. What a great article…so many folks (clergy and laity alike) need to hear this. I am a church musician, and often play for funerals of friends and strangers alike. Thankfully my current and former pastor were both very good with funerals. However, I am always disappointed in the families. I almost always get requests to play secular songs “in honor” of the deceased. One family even asked for a song by the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. My standard reply is to let them know the pastor must approve all songs during liturgy (talk about passing the buck), but if they want a secular song, they can potentially reserve it for the funeral home or the church hall after mass is ended. Also, I wish someone would address the notion that deceased children become angels…this is such a misconception.

  7. To use a good Catholic word, Bingo! the toughest thing for those of us who celebrate the Mass of Christian burial properly is that so many clergy turn it into a canonization.

  8. Thank you for the important post. One point I could use clarification on- since God exists out of time, can’t we continue to pray for God’s mercy as that person faces judgement, even decades later? I always understood that God knew my prayers before I spoke them. I like to imagine the prayers I have said and will say deposited at the feet of my loved one as they face God in their judgement. I understand the importance of praying for those in purgatory, but people’s prayers are no less powerful as time passes and can still directly impact someone’s judgement. Is that correct?

  9. I totally agree with you, Msgr. This is how I expect my parents’ funerals and mine to be conducted. However, I have also experienced the opposite. My grandson was born prematurely at 24 weeks. He lived for five days and he was baptized in the hospital. As baptism takes away all sin and since an infant is incapable of actual sin, he is definitely in heaven. Yet the priest who came and prayed with us immediately after his death prayed that his sins would be forgiven. Very upsetting experience.

  10. Tragic but true story to show just how bad its gotten. My friends brother murdered his child, wife, and committed suicide. The priest, aiming to comfort him, said be consoled he and the family are in heaven now. Outrageous.

  11. This is an excellent reflection, however, it presumes something that can no longer be presumed: That the family will actually HAVE a funeral Mass for the deceased (regardless of whether or not the deceased was a practicing Catholic). I just had a lengthy conversation with a Catholic funeral home director who said that the rapidly — she emphasized rapidly — growing trend is for there NOT to be a funeral at ALL. Most families ask now for a “deacon or something” to “just say a few prayers” at the funeral home and then go straight to the cemetery. We had this happen in my husband’s family recently – his uncle, who never missed a Sunday Mass — died and his five children, who no longer practice the faith, opted not to have a funeral Mass. The deacon came to the funeral home, said a few prayers, and that was it. The funeral home director told me that some elderly people now write their funeral Mass expectations into their wills, so concerned are they that their families will not afford them the “luxury” of a proper funeral liturgy.

    1. Thank you for noting this Mary. This is such a sad state of affairs. I cannot imagine withholding a funeral Mass from a faithful Catholic. Children will have much to answer for when it comes time for them to face God’s judgement. Woe to them.

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