“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?