The trauma of losing someone close is very deep and leaves us disorientated.
Depending on the circumstances, the death of a loved one can leave us feeling numb, shocked, exhausted, angry, relieved, depressed, or a combination of any of these.
Trying to organise a funeral in the middle of all this is not easy.
What follows is intended as a brief guide to help you choose what is best for the funeral of a loved one. First, there is a brief description of the principal rites at the time of a funeral, and then some general advice about planning.
Remembering the Dead: The Wake or Vigil
Funerals are a time for remembering. We can feel an urge to tell the story of the one who has died. Stories about the good times and the bad surface and want to be told. We reminisce. This is something natural and healthy and deserves a bit of time and space. The Irish tradition of the wake has allowed for this, but this custom has not survived everywhere.
The Reception of the Remains
An important moment in the Funeral celebration is when the body of the person who has died is received or welcomed back into the parish church. When the chief mourners arrive with the coffin at the door of the church, they are greeted by the priest or lay minister who conducts the service. The coffin is sprinkled with holy water as a reminder of Baptism: the person who has died was already united at Baptism with the death of Christ in order that he or she would rise again to new life.
The coffin is then led in procession to the sanctuary of the church. When everyone has taken their place, Christian symbols may be placed on the coffin. Then sit of the Liturgy of the Word.
The Liturgy of the Word
The Liturgy of the Word is the central part of this service and is composed mainly of readings from the Bible. These writings help us to know Christ himself, who passed through death into new life.
Who Should Read the Readings?
It is best to pick someone who already reads at Mass, a friend, relative. One piece of advice: a person who was close to the one who has died may be put under quite a strain, trying to read in public, so close family may not be the best candidates. They need support and care rather than additional burdens. If you want to involve family members and other chief mourners in a prominent way in the liturgy, choose other ways instead of reading.
Extending Sympathies to the Mourners
At the end of the Reception of the Body (if it takes place the evening before the Funeral Mass), the family or chief mourners normally remain in the church so that people may greet them briefly and sympathise.
The Funeral Mass
The Funeral Mass is normally the principal element of the whole funeral. The greatest gift we can give a person is to remember them at Mass and to unite our prayers for them with the self-offering of Jesus which is at the heart of the Mass.
The principal focus in the funeral Mass will be on Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection are solemnly commemorated and made present under the signs of bread and wine. At Mass, the Christian community pray for the deceased and bereaved among others so that they will receive the strength and the care they need. Most importantly, the whole liturgy proclaims Jesus Christ who was crucified, died, and rose from the dead and prays that each one of us, in our own way, will share in his triumph over death.
Presentation of Symbols
At the start of the introduction rite is the most suitable time to present symbols that represent and reflect the deceased’s life. The symbols allow those who have gathered, especially friends and neighbours of the bereaved who may not actual know the deceased person to become familiar with them, and allow them to enter the celebration of the Mass in a more meaningful and prayerful manner. Usually, close family members present the gifts, and it is advised to have a commentator to example the meaning behind the symbols. Ideally, the symbols are placed in a clearly visible area close to the altar.
The Word of God
The Word of God proclaimed in the Scripture readings is the voice of Christ himself. He has a message of love and hope for us most especially in the bleak experience of death. Because of the importance of the Scriptures, we do not have any other readings at this point of the Mass. Family may have other prayers or texts that are relevant to the death of their loved one. They may include them at another part such as post communication reflection
Who should read? As at the Reception of the Remains, choose a confident person. Getting up to read is difficult enough without having to worry about whether the person may break down and cry.
The Liturgy of the Word finishes with the Prayer of the Faithful which include special prayers for the person who has died and all those who mourn their passing.
The Preparation of Gifts
The gifts of bread and wine are carried forward and presented to the priest. This is an ideal moment to involve family members or others among the chief mourners – it is a significant action in the Mass, and yet easily performed.
The Final Commendation
The Mass concludes with a solemn and moving ritual through which we commend our loved one to God’s love before we go our separate ways. The coffin is sprinkling the coffin with blessed water, as a reminder of Baptism, and we use incense as a sign of honour to their body, which was a temple of the Holy Spirit.
The Rite of Committal
The committal is when the body of the deceased either by burial or cremation. It can be a harrowing, but important, moment, and should not be rushed over. We need to take time with this moment of ‘goodbye’.
• This first thing is not to worry about the arrangements. All the material above may seem rather detailed, but in practice the priest and undertaker will guide you through it. Do not feel you have to do everything.
• After a death has occurred people sometimes feel under pressure to have the Mass and burial as soon as possible. Avoid the temptation to rush things.
• Enquire among family and friends if they wish to be involved in some way and how. Do not make the choice for them – instead offer them the options available such as placing of Christian symbols at the reception of remains, bringing up a symbol or the gifts at Mass, reading, doing a prayer of the faithful.
• The reading of any texts in the church itself are demanding, so take time to choose a suitable reading and prepare.
• Music can add greatly to the meaningful celebration of a funeral. In the church itself, where religious music that has been written for the liturgy facilitate the bereaved to enter the Christian understanding of death and resurrection.
You might find it helpful to have other significant moments in the weeks and months ahead when you remember your loved one in a special way: a month’s mind Mass, visits to the cemetery, the annual parish Mass for the dead in November, putting up a tombstone, and the first anniversary.