This past May two of my relatives passed away within a few days of each other. One had a Catholic funeral Mass, or the Mass of Christian Burial, and the other had a non-Catholic service. I have only attended five funerals outside of the Catholic Church, and the one thing they all had in common was a lack of order that left me feeling kind of bewildered. The seriousness that is always present at a Catholic funeral Mass was missing. The solemn tone and order that I am accustomed to, just wasn’t there. Instead of being consoled, I was sad that prayers were not an important part of the service for the person we had come to mourn and remember. There was respect, true sadness, and an outpouring of love, but the comfort I expected to experience was lacking. I think it is natural to expect to feel something when you attend a funeral, to have some kind of connection to God and to the person you have lost. You think the grief within will in some way be lessened because you have attended a service, and when that doesn’t happen, it makes it that much more difficult to begin the healing process.
Prayers for the Dead
I believe the main reason there are such vast differences between Catholic and non-Catholic funerals is because there are different belief systems regarding Purgatory. For those religions that do not believe in Purgatory, prayer for the dead is obviously not practiced. But Catholics do believe in Purgatory, and therefore cannot be sure whether or not those who have died are in heaven. Because we do not know the exact time when a person will attain heaven, we continue to pray for them with personal prayers and devotions, and also at every Mass that has, or will ever be prayed. The Christian life seeks to be with Jesus, to rise and share in that eternal life we have been promised. The purpose of a Catholic funeral is to first, pray for the salvation of the deceased person, and secondly to help those grieving begin to find peace. In the funeral Mass, we ask the Lord to receive the soul of our loved one into his or her eternal heavenly home. This is what every Christian hopes for and it is why we offer the Mass on their behalf. Because Catholics know the infinite value of the Mass, it should be continually offered for friends and relatives even after their deaths.
Love Motivated Us
My grandmother was 98 years old when we received a call from the nursing home that she was found unresponsive. Later that evening she was taken to the hospital and for the next four days she never spent a moment alone. We were with her day and night until her death. There were no less than 15 to 20 people in that hospital room most of the time. My mother and her brothers held out hope that maybe she would pull through, but the doctor was very clear. He told them, “Your mother is dying. Most of the people that come here die alone. It’s beautiful to see all of you here. Look at all of this love; that love started with her. Now it is time to let her go.” Those words allowed them to come to terms with the reality of the situation and let the dying process continue. It is the love we have for her that moved us to want to celebrate her life, to honor her by offering the funeral Mass for the quick repose of her soul.
Supported by the Order of the Mass
Several days later the family and a few friends met at the church for her funeral. There was a short viewing in the vestibule and then we all gathered around the casket and the priest offered prayers. We proceeded into the entryway of the church and the casket was covered with a white cloth and sprinkled with holy water, both in remembrance of her Baptism when she was brought into God’s family. More prayers were prayed, and then we all followed as the casket was rolled to the front of the church. We took our seats and the Mass began. The family participated by carrying up the gifts and reading the Scriptures. After the Gospel reading, the priest most fittingly spoke about love. Not so much about the love we had for Grandma or the love she had for us, but more specifically about the love that God has for all of us. It was perfect because some of the people there didn’t practice any form of religion at all, but they were blessed to hear all about the love God had for them. The Mass concluded and we followed the casket out of the church. Every step of the way we were guided by the priest, by the order of the Mass. We were supported in our grief and consoled by the process.
Grace is Twofold
At the luncheon after the funeral, my cousin who is a Christian, but not Catholic, pulled me aside and told me that he hadn’t felt anything like that in such a long time. He pointed to his heart and just looked down and shook his head. The Mass touched him. He felt something. He had an interior experience of God because of the Mass, because of the words that were spoken and the prayers that were prayed. The grace that flows from every Mass flowed straight into his heart. His love for Grandma and his need to honor her life opened a door and the Lord was able to plant new seeds. That is beautiful and it speaks to the power of the Mass and the impact it has on our lives.
The grace received through the funeral Mass was twofold: there was grace being poured out for my grandmother to aid her on her new journey toward heaven, and there was grace being poured into the hearts of those who came to remember her in the Mass. I think what affected me in the non-Catholic service was the sorrow of those left behind. There was an empathy that is naturally present for those suffering such a loss, but the solace I hoped to receive, I could only experience in the reception of Jesus, present in the Eucharist and in the Mass.