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Online Edition - Vol. VII, No. 2: April 2001

Last Things

by Bishop Raymond Burke

"The care with which we bury the dead", wrote Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wisconsin, "expresses our faith in the victory over everlasting death which our Lord Jesus Christ has won in our human nature by his own death and resurrection.

"We bury the dead in the sure hope of the resurrection of the body, when their mortal bodies will share fully in the glory of the risen Christ", Bishop Burke wrote in his pastoral letter on Christian burial issued on All Souls Day, November 2, 2000.

The letter reminds Catholics that the primary purpose of a funeral Mass is not to console the survivors, even though "the time of death is usually heavy with emotion". The bishop stresses the sacredness of the rites, and that all facets of the ritual from the music selected to the interment ceremony must reflect this reality. He made it very clear that the funeral Mass is a time for prayer, not for eulogies.

Excerpts from Bishop Burke's pastoral directives on funeral rites, which was published in its entirety in Origins January 25, 2001, follow.

Prayer for the Dead

At the time of death the priest should be called to pray for the dying person and to celebrate the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist in the form of viaticum. The Roman Ritual contains a special section, "Pastoral Care of the Dying" (Part II of Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and Viaticum) to direct the priest and the other faithful in assisting spiritually the dying person. The Roman Ritual indicates the distinct purpose of this special section: "The ministry to the dying places emphasis on trust in the Lord's promise of eternal life rather than on the struggle against illness which is characteristic of the pastoral care of the sick" (Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and Viaticum, 1983 ed., 161).

Care should be taken to call upon the ministry of the priest in a timely manner, not waiting until the moment of death. The greatest help to the dying person is the prayer of the Church and, most of all, the reception of the Holy Eucharist as viaticum, the spiritual food for the journey from this life to the life which is to come.

If the person has already died, the priest should also be called to offer the Church's prayers for the dead and to bless the body (cf. Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and Viaticum, 223-231).

When the priest or deacon is not available or is unable to bring viaticum, an extraordinary minister of the Holy Eucharist or leader of prayer should be called to bring the sacrament to the dying (cf. "Revised Norms for the Leaders of Prayer in the Diocese of LaCrosse," 9). When the priest or deacon is not available or is unable to come to offer the prayers for the dying or for one already deceased, a leader of prayer should be called to assist the dying person and the family (cf. "Revised Norms for Leader of Prayer in the Diocese of La Crosse," 16).

Praying for the dead is an integral part of our Christian life; it is one of the spiritual works of mercy. Our prayer for the dead both honors their memory and expresses our faithful love as we assist them to be purified of any temporal punishment due to sin and to reach their final destiny and lasting home with God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs us about the importance of prayer for the dead:

"From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead" (1032).

Prayer should be encouraged for all the dead. Even though a person may have lived a most exemplary life from all appearances, no one knows the soul of the departed and the temptations which he or she may have suffered in life. Often enough, as we know from the lives of the saints, those who practice the greatest virtue also suffer the greatest temptations. It is a grave injustice to the dead to say that they do not need our prayers. Rather, we should continue to express our love for the faithful departed by our prayers for their eternal rest (cf. Order of Christian Funerals, 6-7).

"The age-old custom of making an offering so that Mass may be celebrated for the eternal rest of the deceased is to be commended. The faithful who participate in the wake should be encouraged to make Mass offerings for the intention of the eternal rest of the deceased brother or sister. Offerings which are given for Masses for the deceased may not be used for any other purpose. Mass offerings should be given directly to the parish priest either by the family or by the funeral director. Mass offerings given at the time of death and burial should be turned over to the parish priest as soon as possible so that arrangements may be made for the celebration of the Masses requested.

In our time, for whatever reason, fewer Mass offerings are received at the time of death. The failure to have Masses offered for the dead is a failure of love for the deceased person. There is no more effective means to express our love and provide spiritual help for those who have died than to have the Mass offered for the eternal repose of their souls.

Prayers for the dead should be part of our daily prayer. The custom of praying for the dead at the end of each family meal is a most effective way of fulfilling our duty to pray for the dead.

Funeral rites include the wake

The time of death is usually heavy with emotion and can also be confusing for those who have been close to the deceased. It is important that those making the funeral arrangements have immediately the assistance of the priest and other parish ministers in planning well the funeral rites, in accord with the Church's teaching and practice.

It must be kept in mind that the wake is fully part of the funeral rites. Therefore, it should be planned and carried out with great respect for our faith, especially faith in the resurrection of the body. Whenever possible, music should be provided for the vigil liturgy.

The celebration of the Office of the Dead from the Liturgy of the Hours during the time of wake or vigil is encouraged, especially when the wake takes place in the parish church. The public recitation of the Rosary of our Blessed Mother is also a most efficacious prayer for the eternal rest of the deceased.

If the wake must take place in the main body of the church, care must be taken to respect the presence of the Blessed Sacrament reposed in the tabernacle.

The wake is the appropriate time for members of the family and friends to share memories of the deceased or to pay tribute to the deceased. It is the appropriate time for the giving of a eulogy or eulogies. Also, it is the appropriate time to recall those things which were dear to the deceased through photographs and other objects, and through the singing of favorite songs.

Sacred music is integral to the funeral rites (cf. Order of Christian Funerals, 30). The music at the funeral Mass is to be truly sacred. Sometimes family members or friends desire that some secular song or music, which was favorite to the deceased, be sung or performed. The appropriate time for the singing or playing of any favorite secular music is the wake. It may not be introduced into the funeral Mass, not even during the carrying of the body from the church at the end of the Mass.

The homily, which is reserved to the priest or deacon, opens up the Holy Scriptures to our understanding so that our faith may be strengthened and our hope nourished. The homily is not to be a eulogy.

Sometimes family members or friends desire to express appreciation or to read a prayer or other inspirational text at the conclusion of the funeral Mass. Words of appreciation or the reading of a prayer may take place after communion and before the final commendation. Only one family member or friend is to speak, and he or she is to be brief. The words of appreciation are not to be a eulogy. Those who wish to give a eulogy fittingly do so during the wake.

Also, because of the intensity of the emotions at the time of the funeral, the words or prayer should be consigned to writing and shared in advance with the celebrant.

Bishop Burke's pastoral letter also included directives for celebration of funerals in the presence of cremated remains.

He noted that "[d]eath for the faithful Christian is not annihilation but final passage to our lasting home with God in heaven", and concluded his letter on Christian burial with a prayer:

May our celebration of the funeral rites always express our firm faith and sure hope in the resurrection of the body on the last day. May our prayers for the dead assist them on the final stage of their pilgrimage home to God the Father. May we prepare ourselves each day for our own death, praying that it may be happy and may bring us safely home to the Father.

***

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