“Watch, therefore,” this Sunday’s Gospel for the First Week of Advent warns rather ominously.
“You do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.” Thoughts of death and its consequence, judgment, and its inevitable denouement, heaven or hell, are not among the most popular Christian doctrines as this third millennium of Christianity adds another year.
Death and dying were an important part of 19th century culture, with massive tombstones and parlor memorials woven from the deceased’s hair. The passing of loved ones continued into the 20th century to have a strong cultural expression. Black arm bands and wreaths on the deceased’s front door are within living memory. Lately, almost precipitously, the death of a loved one is handled with more and more dispatch as wakes and even funeral Masses are replaced with brief graveside services. Cremation has now been added to the Catholic ritual although locally this option is not frequent. And of course the eulogy, borrowed from traditional Protestant burial rites, often intrudes into the Catholic Rite of Christian Burial.
In anticipation of All Souls Day earlier this month, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin wrote to the priests of the diocese noting the lack of observance by some Catholic families of the traditional rites of Catholic burial. Priests are becoming more and more aware that some families will request a simple prayer service at the funeral home or even, as was noted, a blessing at the graveside. The vigil or wake held the day and evening before burial and, most sadly, the Mass of Christian Burial are “respectfully omitted.” The brevity of the grieving process is astonishing.
The reduction of a family’s grieving process is directly related to the diminution of a family’s faith. People who never go to Mass no doubt feel hypocritical or at least self-conscious participating in a Mass which they have not witnessed since their niece made First Communion in 1989. Sadly, the Mass does not mean anything to them so, frankly, why bother? This is a problem broader than Christian burial. Mass attendance among Catholics in Rhode Island and nationwide rests at about 25 percent. Fewer funerals reflect a wider spiritual malaise within the Church.
The Catholic funeral rites, and Catholic devotional life in general, have suffered greatly since the middle of the last century due to the loss of the sense of sin (“the greatest evil of our age,” according to Pope Pius XII). Since sin is virtually eliminated from the Catholic conscience, the need to atone for sin has disappeared from the funeral sermon. The funeral Mass has become simply a time for mild reflection on the past and inevitable promise for the future. The notion that the deceased might be in need of one’s prayers is also “respectfully omitted.” Someone who never went to Mass, lived in an irregular marriage, was involved in dubious business deals, and was physically abusive might be grateful that his survivors kindly offered Mass for the salvation of his soul. But even to suggest the need of forgiveness would be considered the height of disrespect. Death, judgment, heaven and hell are the last things on a Catholic’s mind at the time of death.
Today’s society greatly underestimates the trauma that results from the death of a loved one. Human beings have to grieve. Persons have to get the death of a family member out of their system, so to speak; they have to deal with death. Death is casually dismissed at one’s own peril. The rite of Christian burial — wake, Mass, internment in consecrated ground — is not only the privilege of every baptized Catholic. These rites also comfort, fortify, and clarify the thoughts and emotions of the survivors.
Frankly, to skip them not only robs the deceased of effective prayers, it also robs the mourners of a time-tested routine for dealing with one of life’s critical events. An abbreviated burial rite for the deceased might well mean an elongated grieving process for the survivors.
Baptisms, marriages and funerals are the broad milestones by which most Catholics work out their life in this world and their destiny in the next world. When these are neglected, the traveler goes easily astray.