We find ourselves once more in the darkening days of winter when nature itself moves ever closer to its lowest ebb in the course of its yearly cycle. November is a month when we traditionally remember our dead and pray for all our loved ones who have gone before us. It is the most difficult moment in life, when we are confronted by personal grief, a grief that is sometimes all the more acute because of the circumstances or suddenness of death. My thoughts are particularly with those who have lost a loved one in the past year. May you be assured of my prayers as you continue to come to terms with the sadness and loss that come with parting.
Last year, at this time, I wrote to you indicating that a conversation was going to take place across the diocese about how we celebrate funerals in our local parishes. I am delighted to tell you that such a conversation has taken place, and indeed, that it will continue. Since that pastoral letter of November 2014, every parish undertook a detailed questionnaire about our funeral practices. This questionnaire consulted not only parish clergy and staff but also parish pastoral councils and liturgy groups. It was followed by a very successful facilitated conversation in each of the three deaneries, in Mount St. Anne’s, Killenard, in Leighlinbridge Parish Centre and in The Osprey Hotel in Naas. These gatherings were attended by a wide cross section of interested parties including, among others, funeral directors, parish clergy and staff, music ministers and members of funeral ministry teams. While a full account from the conversations is available to read on our diocesan website, I want to comment on a few things that arose in the conversation.
The consolation faith brings: I was heartened and humbled to see the deep care and compassion that everyone felt for people in the midst of mourning. This was an overarching theme in every conversation. The desire to support and care for families at one of the most difficult times in their lives was paramount. Alongside this desire was the deeply held belief that our faith allows us to be a people of hope, even in the face of death. There was a keen awareness that the rituals and prayers following a death proclaim, for the bereaved and for all who gather with them, the Christian belief in the resurrection. While the pain of mourning cannot be taken away, the prayers and actions of our liturgy at the time of death enable us to pray for our loved one who is returning to God while also proclaiming our understanding of death through the eyes of faith. This is the consolation of our faith.
The new reality and context of funerals: Often in the conversations I heard people talk about the solid foundation we have in regard to the celebration of funerals. There was a strong desire to build upon this foundation so as to let the prayer of the Church continue to minister to those who mourn. There was also an awareness that our funeral rites take place in the context of new realities that exist in many of our parishes. Many families coming to the Church for the funeral of a loved one may not be as engaged with the Church as they were in the past. Indeed, the ‘family’ who gather for a funeral may be more complex than in the past. And yet families are more involved in actually preparing the funeral liturgies than ever before. As a result, I can see a clear need to sensitively help families both prepare as best they can and pray the rituals around the time of death. This help comes primarily from the local parish and funeral directors. And I want to take this opportunity to highlight the tremendous work and extraordinary contribution that parish clergy and staff and funeral directors carry out every day in our parishes. The purpose of this follow up letter is to support and endorse practice and custom at a local parish level.
Throughout the conversation people have asked me to address in a pastoral and respectful way three areas of concern in particular: the place of eulogies or words of remembrance; the presentation of symbols or personal mementoes of the deceased and something on the choice of music. From the outset I want to state emphatically no family should feel they must have someone deliver a eulogy or people carrying up mementoes. In fact neither the eulogy nor the mementoes are part of the official liturgy of the Church. But if there has been a tradition of a eulogy or the bringing up of a number of mementoes in your parish, it is better to frame it within current best practice.
The Eulogy / Appreciation: There should be at most one eulogy, preferably delivered at the Removal or in the Cemetery. If it is to be delivered during the Mass, it may happen at the end of the Mass, once the text has been approved by the celebrant. The text should convey the family’s thanks for support around the death and it should speak of the faith of the deceased. It is important that the eulogy text be agreed with the celebrant. It should last no longer than three minutes.
Mementoes: Regarding mementoes, they are different to the Christian symbols resting on the coffin, and they typically might be items personal to the deceased and their life story or interests. It is important that these mementoes respect the liturgy and are appropriate to be placed on the sanctuary. The best time to carry up the mementoes is at the beginning of the Mass. Once again, I stress neither the eulogy nor the mementoes are necessary to the liturgy.
Choice of Music: The Diocese has a long tradition of liturgical music and prides itself in a rich repertoire. Music and song have a great presence in our liturgy and often the gentle instrumental piece speaks loudest of all. Once again, there may often be a request around the loved one’s favourite song or ballad – sometimes the lyrics will be at opposite ends to the liturgy. Hymns or appropriate instrumental music should make up the important elements of the liturgy, if there is to be the inclusion of a favourite song, this may happen during the sympathising at the evening removal or as the coffin leaves the church at the end of the Mass.
I have asked the Diocesan Commission for Liturgical Formation to prepare a more detailed guide on all these issues over the coming months, a guide that can be given to families as they begin their preparations. This guide will take on board much of what has emerged in the past year’s consultation. Once again the conversation continues, and please feel very free to engage with us over the early months of 2016.
Recognising practices and offering resources: Changing practices were also named in our conversations. These included a small growth in the practice of cremation of the body after the Funeral Mass has taken place, as well as a significant increase in the reception into church taking place immediately before the Funeral Mass, rather than on the evening before. This latter trend calls us to make sure that families are supported in having prayer in the home/funeral home ahead of the Funeral Mass. As a result, I have again asked the Commission to provide parishes with prayers for this context. Again, I acknowledge the gentle ministry of priests, parish sisters, funeral directors and parish lay ministers who already are leading this prayer. I hope that the Prayer Resource will allow even more people to share this ministry, including, where desired, the families of the deceased themselves.
As we look ahead, I very much pray that what we have begun in the past year will grow and bear fruit in parishes across our diocese. It is a beginning; the conversation and the work will continue. Death touches all families and I pray that these gentle guidelines, emerging from a very full conversation over the past twelve months will serve to enhance our liturgies and our funeral celebrations across our diocese.
Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin