I attended a funeral last week. I was somewhat hesitant about going, since I did not know the deceased personally. She was the mother of a high school acquaintance I had reconnected with through Facebook a few years ago. The funeral Mass was being held at a parish I sometimes attend for Sunday Mass, so I decided to go. Not knowing the family well and not wanting to intrude on their grief, I decided I’d just sit in the back of the church and pray for them and for the repose of the soul of their loved one.
As I drove to the funeral, though, I still wondered. Was I doing the right thing? It seemed odd to attend a funeral for someone I did not know.
As I was walking across the parking lot, an elderly lady fell in step beside me. She was also heading into the funeral and she had a question: “Whose funeral is this?”
Startled, I looked over at her, and then gave her the name of the deceased. She repeated it, as if trying to make certain she had understood it. We then moved off in our own directions to find seats.
The elderly lady’s question remained with me. I had been nervous about attending the funeral of someone I did not know personally, but I did at least know her name and had a slight connection to her survivors. The lady I met in the parking lot evidently had no connection to the deceased and didn't even know her name. Why would she want to attend the funeral?
These days, many Christians think funerals are to celebrate the life of the deceased. That is probably how customs such as displaying the body in an open casket and giving eulogies that recount the virtues of the deceased attained such a prominent place in modern funeral rituals in many parts of the West.
But these celebratory rituals can create consternation for survivors and others if the deceased happened to be a difficult, unlikable person, or if the deceased committed grave sins against his family or the community. People could wonder why they should go to funerals for dead people they heartily disliked or had reason to avoid during that person’s life. Sometimes they might even ask if the deceased “deserves” a funeral. In Catholic circles, it is not uncommon to hear complaints about Catholics who lived in some way at odds with Church teaching being given a funeral Mass.
What, then, does the Church have to say about this extraordinary time?
The Code of Canon Law states that Catholic funerals have three purposes: “In these funeral rites the Church prays for the spiritual support of the dead, it honors their bodies, and at the same time it brings to the living the comfort of hope” (1176 §2).
Notice that the first two purposes for the Church’s funeral rites focus on the needs of the deceased: spiritual support for the dead and honor for their bodies. The “spiritual support” is prayer. The Church has always taught it is necessary for Christians to offer prayers for the deceased. The body of the deceased is honored because during life the body, when a Christian is baptized and confirmed, is a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit.
The third purpose is to bring hope to the living. While there is hope for the individual Christian who has died, it is also a communal hope that we will all share in the final resurrection of the dead at the end of time.
The Church recommends that there be a Mass offered for the repose of the soul of the deceased. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
In the Eucharist [offered for the repose of the soul of the deceased], the Church expresses her efficacious communion with the departed: offering to the Father in the Holy Spirit the sacrifice of the death and resurrection of Christ, she asks to purify his child of his sins and their consequences, and to admit him to the Paschal fullness of the table of the kingdom.
It is by the Eucharist thus celebrated that the community of the faithful, especially the family of the deceased, learn to live in communion with the one who “has fallen asleep in the Lord,” by communicating in the body of Christ of which he is a living member and, then, by praying for him and with him (CCC 1689).
In the funeral Mass, Christ’s own passion, death, and resurrection are sacramentally re-presented to the Father as a means of petitioning for purification of the deceased so that he may be brought more quickly into complete union with God. That is why funeral Masses are not just for the holy, or even just for nice people. If anything, those who were difficult or even despicable have even greater need for the graces obtained in a funeral Mass than those who are presumed to be holy or nice. If there is reason to hope that the deceased died in a state that would allow him to benefit from a funeral Mass, then most bishops will give a green light to doing so.
Which brings us back to the elderly lady I met at the funeral for my friend’s mother. She did not know the deceased, She had to ask for the name of the deceased, probably so that she could pray for her by name. But she wanted to be there to assist in the prayers for the soul of a fellow Catholic—not because she knew the deceased but because she saw in the deceased a sister in Christ who was in need of the prayers of the mystical body of Christ.
Catholic parishes often announce upcoming funerals in the parish, either in the bulletin or in the announcements given at the conclusion of Mass. One reason for announcing this extraordinary time is because the funerals are open to the entire Catholic community, and the Church hopes that we will participate in burying and praying for the dead, corporal and spiritual works of mercy. If you can occasionally attend funerals held in your parish, I urge you to go, whether or not you knew the deceased. It is our hope as Christians that we will one day meet in heaven.