Saying Our Proper Farewell to the Faithful Departed

With many people who are confused with “trendy” celebration services offered by funeral homes and with the rising number of people who are no longer regular practicing their faith, I would like to share some Catholic teachings regarding our faith understanding of funeral:

– We do not do a celebration of life in the liturgical context. This trend was started secularly for those who have no particular faith tradition, especially those who have no or little belief in eternal life. It was a way to just focus on the life of the person instead of focusing on the mercy of God and the scope of eternity. The family can choose to remember the person in an intimate gathering or setting, as a family, but not in the Mass itself. All liturgies in the life of the Church have to be theocentric and remind us of our dependence on Him.

– We do not focus on celebrating one’s life at Mass, nor are we there to “canonize” a person as if he or she is a declared saint, worthy of everything, does not need to be saved or the forgiveness and mercy of God. We are all humans, and we have all failed in one way or another to love, even with our best intentions; therefore, we have to entrust ourselves and the faithful departed to His divine mercy. We offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the repose of the soul of the person. We are being reminded that Christ Jesus offered Himself, especially in the unbloodied sacrifice of the MassHis Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity — for our salvation. Therefore, we come together to offer the soul of the faithful departed in unity with the ultimate sacrifice of Christ.

– We do not only have to talk about the good of the person to honor the person. It is commendable but not always necessary, especially at times of loss and grief, when words often fall short of our love for them. It is perfectly fine to let our sorrow, grief, and all of our uncertainty be united to the love of God, not trying to sell false comfortable hope with nicely-packaged words; but to comfort and pray for one another, grounding ourselves in the real hope of God‘s divine justice and mercy. Our tears, sorrows, and grief are the great signs of love and affection, beyond what we can express through words, and they speak louder than anything that we can say at the time of loss.

– Some bigger parishes made the error of not having the body or cremains not present to appease people’s sensitive feelings throughout the time of loss. People are scared of seeing the body or cremains will evoke sad memories and negative emotions, they just want to keep it as a “celebration” in order to brush over the finite and mortal nature of our humanity. However, there are times to celebrate, but there are also times to say farewell — each is proper and needed in its right timing. It is perfectly fine to be sad, not able to understand what is going on at the moment, embrace the natural tensions, and allow our sorrows to speak louder than the superfluous words that deflect and hide the reality.

– Cremation is an option for the universal Church because there are places in the world where burial space is an issue, and the government would only permit ground burials for a short period of time before exhumation and transfer of the remains to another resting place. Burial of the whole body is still the first and preferred option, but the Church does permit cremation due to the reality of the conditions of where our faithful live in the world at large. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that cremains is to be treated with the same dignity and respect as the body itself. All cremains have to be interred either in a columbarium or cemetery as the final place of rest. Just as the sanctuary is consecrated for the worship, praise, glory, and honor of God for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Church’s liturgical celebrations, cemeteries or columbaria have been dedicated as final resting places of the faithful. They are specifically required by many states’ laws to be perpetually kept and maintained — even civil ones — to show the foundational dignity and respect for the departed. One does not want to have a similar episode like in the movie, Meet the Fockers, where the cremains got knocked over and the cat, Mr. Jinx, used it for its restroom needs.

– Our body is the Temple of the Lord and needs to be treated as such. If we are to be cremated, the cremains is to be treated as the body itself (because it is the body in a different form), with proper respect and dignity. We cannot do novel things to the body or its cremains just because it sounds nice, like to scatter it to wherever the wind might take it, making it into a crystal to wear, subdivide it for different people to hold on to at different places, turning it into compost to be buried underneath a tree or somewhere, or whatever the newest trends might be offered by funeral home services. It is important to know that the body (or its cremains) has to be present at the funeral because an important part of the liturgy itself is to bless and do the final commendation for the faithful departed. The funeral liturgy actually begins with the gathering around the body, then the Vigil Service, follows by the Funeral Mass, and ends with the Rite of Commital. It is also the duty of the priest or deacon to make sure that the person is properly interred, hence the well-known and integral phrase is said before the final departure:

Requiem æternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. 

Eternal rest grant unto him/her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him/her. May he/she rest in peace.” 

The rite asks that we leave in silence after that… And while this might seems sad and morbid for some, it is a great reminder of our finitude because we cannot ignore and hide away the nature of mortality itself.

– We do not stop praying for the faithful departed just because the funeral is finished. It is so easy to box and push the memory away and not talk about the pains anymore; however, there are real and effective ways we can continue to honor them after death. The first would be to offer Masses for them and the souls who are in need of our prayers in their purgation period. If our beloved dead does not need the grace, that grace is shared and passed on to those who are in need. Second, my grandparents made it a very important point to gather on the anniversaries of our ancestors’ passing to pray for them, as well as those who have no one to pray for them. These occasions are important and tangible reminders that they are never forgotten but always are here with us in a different way. They fortify our understanding of the Communion of Saints, the pilgrim part of the Church praying for the purgative ones.

“Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”

How can we properly respect the faithful departed? Perhaps by not hiding the reality of death and its sorrows of saying farewell. We have to allow the perennial wisdom of the Church and her liturgy to speak louder than our popular culture’s desires to hide away the needed dependency on God and prayers for the departed soul. It is perfectly fine to allow our tears, sorrows, and mixed emotions to lift our hearts up to the Almighty and give proper respect to the faithful departed. We might not have all the answers, and we will not everything together, but we can all depend on His love as we say our final farewell to our beloved until we meet them again.

With so many confusions and erroneous practices floating around as many are trying to making funerals more “trendy” and less theocentric, I thought I would share some basic Catholic understanding regarding funerals, especially our proper respect and prayers for the faithful departed. In all things, trust the wisdom of the Church and talk with your priests before making any unknown end-of-life decisions.