A new troubling trend marks the U.S. church: the decline in Catholic funerals. It will affect Catholic life in the future if a basic tradition dies out. It also affects pastoral life now if people deprive themselves of closure after the death of a loved one.
Those for whom funeral rites are not celebrated today have often been lifelong Catholics who presume their children will arrange a traditional funeral for them when they die. Some parents may want to alert offspring that they want a funeral Mass.
In 1970, according to statistics from the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), there were 426,309 Catholic funerals in the United States. More than 40 years later, in 2011, there were 412,145, a decrease despite an increased U.S. Catholic population over that time.
A funeral Mass brings the community together and unites people in prayer.
Msgr. Richard Hilgartner, former head of the Secretariat for Divine Worship at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and now a pastor in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, sees a problem for pastors.
The funeral Mass provides pastoral care and comfort for those who mourn so they can express their grief in light of their faith and find consolation in Jesus, Msgr. Hilgartner said in an interview with America.
“The rite of burial puts the death of a Christian in the context of the life of Jesus, which ultimately gives us hope,” he said.
A pastor from the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., suggests that dioceses or clusters of parishes might meet with funeral directors to explain the theological, canonical and pastoral issues involved so the funeral directors can help families of the deceased understand the appropriateness of having the Mass of Christian Burial.
How have we come to this point?
Sometimes it is a matter of expense, though priests report that parishes will make adjustments when the expenses are church-related.
Another reason may be efficiency when funeral homes present themselves as full service providers. Some families can’t pay or object to the offering for a funeral Mass and funeral directors fail to inform them that the church will waive its fee, although they may still have to pay for the organist and a singer.
Diocesan regulations that remind mourners that the funeral Mass is not a venue for a memorial service and that limit eulogies also can be off-putting for some families.
More often, unfortunately, the children are not practicing Catholics and don’t see meaning in the Mass. Some have consciously left the church or no longer feel the cultural pull that exerted itself in the past even over marginal Catholics.
In other instances, especially when very old people have few living relatives, the family may feel embarrassed that the funeral will be in an empty church, though a funeral might be held in a smaller chapel instead if one is available.
Whatever the reasons for not having a funeral Mass these are better reasons for having one. Twenty-five years ago, in 1999, the now late Bishop Michael Saltarelli of Wilmington, Del., highlighted reasons in a letter to the diocese.
“The celebration of Catholic funeral rites promotes a healthy grieving process that can lead to deep levels of personal conversion and spiritual growth,” he wrote to his diocese. He said that “the avoidance of these funeral rites may short-circuit grief and healing.” He advised families that “the Eucharist helps to heal the sorrow that comes from the loss of a loved one.”
Most importantly, he said, “this may well be a special moment of grace for your family.”
Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is a member of the Northeast Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and U.S. Church Correspondent for America.