One of the most frightening things that we can think about is the fact of death. As Thomas More said to his accusers in the great film “A Man for All Seasons”, “Death comes for us all.” So we tend to equivocate and even avoid the word in our conversations. My Dad died morphed into my Dad passed away and even more elliptically, my Dad passed. We can talk about sex in all its particulars, almost shamelessly (look at the papers!), but no ones like to talk about death; in a faithless society, it is the new obscenity.
This translates into our funeral practices. At one time we used to present the body as if it were still alive, just asleep. Now there is a trend to not have the body present at all, even to cremating it immediately and then having not a viewing but a gathering for solace. In the past, cremation was often used by non-believers in the west to express strongly their disbelief in the resurrection of the body (a key article of faith in Christianity).
The funeral Mass has been replaced in some instances by the memorial service. As its name suggests, it is to recall all that the person meant to us through stories, etc. All of this is good, but incomplete. The Mass is meant to include this, but also to be an affirmation of belief, a belief in the future of this person.
Funeral directors tell me that often the families do not want a Mass, just a memorial service in the funeral home (even when the deceased was an ardent churchgoer!). This is a sad capitulation to the erroneous spirit of the time that sees only the horizontal dimension of the person in the earthly sphere and not the majestic vertical dimension of the spiritual meaning of the person’s history and future.
Connected to this is the utter impoverishment of the dignity of the human person. I have been told by funeral directors countless times that families ask that the deceased be cremated, and then the remains stay in the office of the Funeral Home unclaimed and unwanted. Even as the Church has allowed cremations, she has required that the remains be interred in sacred ground, not placed on a mantle at home like a potted plant, nor scattered at the deceased person’s favorite place, nor left in the closet of some funeral home.
These twin vices, lack of belief in an afterlife and the diminished value of the human person, are thus expressed in the way we approach the death of one we love. That is why I often counsel parishioners who are making pre-arrangements for their own funerals to be explicit and write down that they want a funeral Mass and a Christian burial. Nowadays, to assume that this will happen is at best foolish.
Even with a Catholic Mass, it is painfully evident that the family has not been observant in Sunday Mass attendance, and that many have not darkened the door of the Church for many years. Through in the instructions we give for Eulogies, we emphasize that the person giving the eulogy touch on as central the faith-life of the person; however, it is often barely mentioned. We hear about the person’s hobbies, their favorite sports teams, their best dishes that they prepared; but we hear nothing about their faith. It is as though even at Mass, it is still a memorial service eulogy and not a statement of the deceased person’s faith in the Resurrection.
The way we ritualize the death of a loved one expresses much of our basic belief system or lack of one. What troubles me is that, as we cremate more and forsake funeral liturgies, we reveal more the lack of faith of the modern world. Funeral Masses are down in number in most parishes and this is not because people are not dying, it is because of the lack of faith of our times. This, to me, is a troubling trend for religion in America.