Updated: Aug 1, 2019
In my years of helping families plan funeral rites for their loved ones, I have seen a lot of grief. I have seen a great many people with questions, doubts, fears, and frustrations surrounding all that is involved with funerals.
What I also see increasing is the number of people who are not willing to bring their loved one's funerals to the Parish Church. Yes, we are experiencing all sorts of alternative ways people are trying to honor their dead. This trend stems from, yes, you've guessed it, people who have walked away from the life of faith in practice. These folks are otherwise known as the disaffiliated. What I hope to accomplish here is a bridge between two perspectives.
Often, families will come to the parish asking for a funeral for mom or dad, grandpa or grandma, because they know it is what said loved one would want. GOOD! This trend is a sign that while many no longer identify with this faith practice (namely Catholicism) they still long for that connection through their now deceased loved ones. What I want to encourage the rest of the Church to embrace is these disaffiliated people are still a part of the Church. They long for the rituals; they desire to do what a loved one wants with their remains. This tendency models something that Christ himself does time and time again, and that is dying to self to help raise others.
So what do we see? Families desire to have a funeral Mass at the Funeral Chapel, which is a no-no according to the Code of Canon Law. This leads to a conflict in some diocese because the Priest is not supposed to violate Canon law. Many do out of a pastoral desire to tend to the families. So the grieving family gets a hybrid version of the full Catholic ritual. They want to do what the loved one expected but distance themselves from an encounter with the Church due to whatever caused them to leave the practice altogether.
When it comes to those reasons for leaving the Church, the most commonly accepted one is a scandal. Nope! The research shows that's not the root reason. The reality is, most of these incredible people have never had a genuine encounter with Jesus in their formational experiences. They also didn't encounter a community that cared enough to know them and misses them when they weren't present. That's a topic for a different day, but I bring it up to make the following point.
The Funeral Mass is an endpoint for an encounter with the life of faith for the Millenial and Gen. Z population. They distance themselves because they feel judged for leaving. They stay at arm's length because they don't want to be reminded that their lack of participation maybe some sort of sin. They don't care to be reminded of all that pressure from their formational experiences that placed a sour relationship with the Church. Therefore they concede and have a worship experience outside of the Church proper.
So a funeral happens at the funeral home, some folks from the parish community might attend if they see the obituary in the paper or online, but the bulk of the parish community misses out. What do we miss out on? Supporting the family of the deceased. There is a genuine love of neighbor in these parish communities! The interaction of friends from parish groups, no matter how long a person has been absent, still connects them and those relationships have grief too.
The Church also misses out on creating an encounter with the family. Somewhere deep within all people who are disaffiliated, they still acknowledge a God or higher power. The "nones" still desire rituals of the Church because there is a comfort of expectation met through the practice. Yet we see this distancing rooted in being uncomfortable with the Parish setting.
I get it! I am pretty introverted myself, and would rather not deal with the unknown people who might attend the funeral of a loved one. But let me share this- If I can surrender myself to the needs of everyone who liked my family member, I find my heart full. I still grieve, but my heart is comforted knowing their entire Church family was represented and made known to me.
Of course, I have an idea of how we can create a better encounter with these estranged families. Know them before they leave! People stay where they are known and would be missed. The longer a person stays involved or connected to something, the more likely they are to find themselves embroidered into the fabric of the community. When that happens, the love of community enriches life and becomes a desire, not a burden.
When I look out from my position as Cantor on the weekends, I see more faces that I know from helping them with their family funerals each week. The blessing for me is that I look out and see eyes of compassion. I may only meet a family for 30 minutes as we settle on readings and music for a funeral. The joy of hearing those stories of faith weaves us together, and my heart is full knowing I, in some way, helped them.
So faithful Catholics whose families have disaffiliated from the Church, tell your parish family that they've gone. Maybe we will start a campaign of reconnection, rebuilding, and embracing the life of faith from baptism through death and resurrection? Wouldn't that be amazing?! Think about making your wishes known for the end of your life. Don't plan it all for the family and friends left behind, part of the grieving process is discovering God's word and songs to comfort them. In my experience, your spirit and memory will guide the disaffiliated members through the process, and hopefully, they encounter an excellent liturgist to guide them too. An even greater hope is that they encounter Jesus in this experience and re-enter the life of faith... I've seen that happen many times too!
For now, let's start by praying together IN THE CHURCH for funerals. If not, let's do our best to bring Church to them wherever they gather.