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Funerals in and out of church

Funerals in and out of church

The number of church funerals is decreasing, but the importance of funeral has never been greater.

Mary Ann Walsh wonders in America why there are fewer funerals in Catholic churches:

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.

How did we get here?

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.

The Rev. Charles L. Howard, university chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, reflects on the value of the memorial service even in a secular setting.

After the music and slideshow we open the program up to anyone else who was not on the program and would like to offer remarks. Some share hilarious stories. Others shed tears and can barely get a word out. But it’s important for people to have an opportunity to share.

And that’s really what these events are for. The director of our university counseling center likes to remind us how important memorial services are for a campus community. Ceremonies like funerals and memorials are an important part of the grief process for many people. They allow a community to formally say goodbye. They provide us with an opportunity to be together, support one another. Hug each other while we cry. They’re also an opportunity to celebrate a life well-lived and the great blessing it is to journey through life with each other.

I have noticed something at these services. When the speakers come to the front, they identify themselves not simply as department colleagues or fellow researchers in a lab, but as friends. And their remarks may offer a sentence or two about one’s “influence on the field,” “contributions as a scholar” or “excellence in the classroom” but almost to a person, the words offered at memorial services are stories about and testimonies to the character of the individual being memorialized that day. While intellect and professional accomplishments are respected and certainly acknowledged, this is not what those who rise to speak hold on to. If one’s C.V. is the predominant subject matter at one’s memorial service, then something went terribly wrong along the way.


Posted by Andrew Gerns


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