Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 8, Pages 165-177

“The purpose of a funeral is not to uplift the audience,” [Thomas Long] says, “but to transform the cast.” . . . Long identifies two questions by which we might assess a “good” funeral. The first asks how well the funeral helps people to see what he calls “a truth worth seeing.” the second concerns the degree to which the funeral invites its actors to play their parts and thereby be transformed, “to go beyond preoccupations with self, and to move toward that larger, redemptive truth that lies outside of them.”

Page 167

This quote is from the section of this chapter titled “Funeral as Theater.” I agree that funerals should “transform the cast.” I suspect Mr. Long and Dr. Dugdale would agree that, in a funeral, as in all rituals, everyone present should be a “cast member” and not part of an “audience.” Everyone should participate and be transformed by their participation. I have a few thoughts about how, in my experience, this does or does not happen.

For one thing, the “casts” of funeral rites seem to have gotten smaller. Most funerals at which I have presided have been small family affairs. Moreover, the family who are present are usually not regular participants in the church community. Frequently, the “congregations” at funerals do not know the prayers of the Mass or when to sit or stand. At funeral Masses, unlike at most Masses I celebrate, I usually have to give frequent instructions about what to do when. I don’t say this do disparage people or suggest they are unwelcome. I’m glad when people come to funerals. But they are usually not able to function as a “cast” that is performing rehearsed roles. They are more like an “audience,” responding to what clergy, church musicians, ushers, and funeral home staff are saying and doing. I hope the people who attend the funerals I celebrate are helped to see “a truth worth seeing,” But I suspect they are not often transformed through playing their parts.

I wonder if church people like me could make funerals more communal and participatory? One thing we might do is have more people waked in church. I’ve seen this done a handful of times. The casket, whether open or closed, is placed in church a few hours before the funeral liturgy and people come to pay their respects and pray in silence. It’s not too different from a wake in a funeral home, but it is a more prayerful setting and has greater potential to include more parish community. Another possibility might be to schedule funerals at regular Mass times and/or encourage parishioners to attend funerals. If parishioners were present, people who were more prepared to “play their parts” in the funeral liturgy, that might help others attending the funeral to be more like the “cast” and less like the “audience.”

What sets the funeral apart from other meetings is the fact that among those gathered is the one who just died.

It’s something like a wedding, [Long] says. The community gathers–traditionally in a church–to mark a major life transition corporately. But no one would gather for a wedding without the bride and groom. Likewise, no one gathers at a funeral without the presence of the deceased.

Pages 168-169

The presence of the bodily remains is actually what makes a funeral a funeral. Otherwise, it is not a funeral but a memorial. The Catholic funeral liturgy includes rites for sprinkling the body with holy water, and incensing the body during the final commendation as prayers are said and songs are sung. The casket is covered with a funeral pall and brought to the front of the church where the lit paschal candle has been placed. If there is no body, there in no funeral. It is a memorial liturgy in which these elements are not included.

Thomas Long compares funerals to weddings. I think that works. But I think there is a more profound comparison between funerals and baptisms. Not everyone gets married. But everyone you’ve ever met was born, and either has died or will die. In the sacramental life of Catholic Christians, not everyone is united to another in the Sacrament of Matrimony. But everyone is baptized, and everyone dies and, hopefully, had a funeral and a burial. The funeral liturgy begins by recalling the dead person’s baptism. My first line in a funeral is: “In the waters of baptism, N. died with Christ and rose with him to new life; may he/she now share with him eternal glory.” While reciting these words, I sprinkle the casket with holy water, which recalls the water of baptism. The casket is them brought before the paschal candle the front of the church. For most of the year (outside the Easter season), the paschal candle is kept by the baptismal font. It is first lit at the beginning of the Easter Vigil each year as a symbol of the life of the risen Christ. When Christians are baptized, a smaller candle is lit from the paschal candle to symbolize the newly baptized’s participation in that eternal life. At the funeral, the flame of the paschal candle testifies that the light of Christ’s life still burns in the baptized Christian even after death.

Today’s modern hospital rituals . . . are efficient, but efficiency does not allow the bereaved to see the truths worth seeing.

As we seek to reinvigorate the ars moriendi today, it is worth asking ourselves how we might also reinvigorate ritual.

Page 177

Dr. Dugdale remarks upon the efficient but “technical, procedural, perfunctory” medical rituals surrounding death, like “pulling the plug” and embalming. It seems to me that other rituals surrounding death are also succumbing to the desire for efficiency. Traditional funeral and burial rituals involve an inefficient investment of time and money. More and more people are choosing to cremate the love one’s bodies and forego funerals and burials. The costs involved make these choices understandable. But I think people are missing out on truths worth seeing. And the more people miss seeing those truths, the more others will suppose there is nothing to see. Catholic funeral and burial rituals invite people to experience important truths: Christian hope for eternal life, baptism into Christ, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body. But they are not always efficient and not often cheap.

As I reflect on Dr. Dugdale’s closing question, I wonder whether we could reinvigorate these rituals by making them less costly. Are there ways that those of us who see the value of these rituals could make the choice of them more attractive to those who are daunted by their burdens?

5 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 8, Pages 165-177”

  1. Having attended many Catholic funerals, as well as secular ‘memorial services’, in my experience, the rituals, the prayers and the spiritual succor of Catholic funerals are unparalleled. Memorial services may serve as reminders of the happy times in a person’s earthly life, serve to reunite long disjointed families, or provide a forum for grieving and consolation. But none of the memorial services I have attended have the spiritual connection of a Catholic funeral; none have been windows into the afterlife; only a celebration of what once was.

    To me, life is a continuum. We have come from some mysterious place, knit by God in our mother’s wombs (Ps. 139) and we will return to God in His time and His way.

    I agree with Father Jonah that perhaps all funerals should begin with the deceased waked in church. Too often wakes in funeral parlors descend into reunions, mini celebrations of reconciled lost relatives and friends. Where this can be lovely, it may detract from the spiritual transit of the subject of the wake. Too often, the funeral home is without the presence of a priest or for realistic reasons, may only have a brief priestly appearance, leaving the door open to socializing, not spiritual reflection. The wake I attended in a church, changed that dynamic. Though quite brief, the wake seemed more prayerful and spiritually connected. The very atmosphere of the church saw to that.

    And as a last note, funerals are a reminder of a universal truth of our lives. Weddings, though joyous, are not. Though both weddings and funerals share intensely personal characteristics, only funerals remind us of our ultimate end and the completion our earthly cycle. I agree again with Father Jonah, we should not be an audience, but intensely interwoven in the important spirituality of the ritual marking of the end of an earthly life and the beginning of one’s eternity.

  2. Angela, your response reminds me of a quote attributed to Saint Augustine:
    “Take care of your body as if you were going to live forever; and take care of your soul as if you were going to die tomorrow.”

  3. I think perhaps we have to look at when the church strayed from being a community. Coming to weekly mass has become a solitary hour of prayer with no real interaction with the clergy and other church goers. In the Black Church Sunday liturgy is a whole day affair. The church is a real community where participants all know each other. What happened to the coffee social after Catholic mass? I think the Jewish community is also much better at keeping their flock united. I heard a priest say in his homily that he doesn’t worry about the fact that young adults don’t attend mass because they all come back for their children’s baptism. Well what about the single congregants?

    Dr Dugdale tells us that Rabbi Eliana Falk says. of all the things Judaism does well, it does death the best….. well I have read in Catholic New York an essay in which Cardinal Dolan quotes, I believe Jacqueline Kennedy, who says what the Catholic Church does best is birth and death. And he agreed. In my memory Cardinal Dolan goes on to discuss many of the things we have: family members wanting to forego a mass and just have a blessing, multiple eulogies, etc. And how hard it is for the clergy to deal with this. It always seemed to me that sitting Shivah must be so comforting for those in morning instead of our practice of spending a few hours going to mass, going to the cemetery and then spending an hour or so with the grieving family at lunch.

    We are so blessed to have the Dominican Health Care Ministry. But in many communities, although they may have community hospitals and health care facilities within a parish there is little connection. With the dwindling number of clergy it’s understandable now. But this was also my experience as a young nurse in the 70’s when although there was a church across the street, it was hard to get pastoral visits for patients..

    But I still have hope for the future. I see many young people searching for a spiritual connection. And we have many wonderful clergy working hard to develop connections with them.

  4. Vera O -There is no doubt that money has become a significant variable in funerals, as well as lack of burial land, etc. Even those who “believe” and are “actively Catholic” have /are going toward “a few hours …with less and less, for “wakes” and some even doing one hour prior to the burial ritual, and/or Mass. Union wages for cemetery workers and high lumber costs for caskets ,increased transportation costs for flowers and all…have changed the “norm” For others, lifestyle changes, snowbirds, being out of state, on a cruise, etc. when death occurs, have made “mass of remembrance” a substitute for Mass of Christian Burial. Like Bob Dylan “the times they are a changing”. Whether money is the overriding determinant or not, the cultural general secular attitude permeates death as well as life. Whether Participation or audience, both now make up “theater” within the funeral context. Weddings, too, are experiencing the same “need for instructions” and such.as to seating, standing, prayer responses …particularly in our global cities, where inter and multi denominational and differing background marriages are very much within the “norm”. All of these, and many more socio eco and environmental changes help account for the changes…and, no doubt, more to come.

  5. This week, we talk about funeral rites. But for baptized Catholics and those preparing for baptism, funeral services are also a right–not just a privilege–according to Church law. Although Church donations, musician fees and clergy honorariums are customary, finances should not be the barrier to having a funeral Mass. Nor should straying from the Church be a barrier. As this chapter states, the funeral Mass is the final opportunity for the body to come back into the Church.

    While baptisms and funerals are related ceremonially, nuptial and funeral Masses are often both overlooked by modern Christians. The more society strays from these holy traditions, the less we recognize the importance of them. As relaxed interpretations of religion become normalized, some of our “truth” is lost. 

    Making funerals more communal and participatory is a noble goal. But our immediate challenge is to bring Christians back into the Church before it is time for their funerals. When did we redefine obligation to mean optional?

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