A few weeks ago, I visited a new local crematorium to celebrate a funeral liturgy. Usually, I have had to travel several miles and so it is good that there is now somewhere much nearer to home. In most cases, when I visit such places, I always conclude that they are lacking and that there is something artificial and forced about the environment. This was certainly the case on my visit last week. I noticed that the place no longer has Chapels but rather has Suites. Previous places that I have visited has pseudo altars, often with a variety of different faith symbols available, at least giving the opportunity to create something near the sacred. This new place had nothing of this sort and left me feeling cold.
My visit was made all the more sad as there were less than a handful of mourners present at the funeral which I was leading. The deceased had outlived most of their own generation and didn’t have any children. They spent their last few years in a nursing home on the edge of the parish. Two friends and a member of the care staff were all who were present to pay their respects and I suspect few of those knew to pray for the person’s soul.
In such situations, it is hard to convey a sense of hope. The environment and the lack of mourners seem to conspire against the Gospel of hope. In a ‘suite’ which could hold up to 100 mourners, it felt desolate, cold and hopeless.
Burying the lonely and those with just a few family members remaining seems to be something that I am being increasingly asked to do. More and more people are mobile throughout their lives and become detached from local communities, parishes and family. I am left feeling that, as a Church, there is much more that we should be doing to offer care and a witness to the love of God and the value of life.
Burying the dead is a Corporal Act of Mercy. It seems to be left out on a limb fairly often. Other Corporal Acts of Mercy get more attention and are afforded more prestige. Feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless and visiting the sick and imprisoned are far more embraced and accepted. Think of all the energy that the Church agencies, parishes and individuals rightly invest in such activities. Yet we do very little for the dead.
Burying the dead is usually left to the clergy and family members. The faithful in my parish are wonderful in supporting funeral Masses of people known to the community but it would be hard to ask them to give up their time for someone that they did not know. Being part of a proper burial maintains the deceased person’s dignity and is an act of love and kindness to the bereaved.
Most parishes have teams of home visitors, catechists, marriage preparers and those who help plan for baptism. Perhaps we also need teams of people who can be called upon to be present when there are few mourners, to help with the singing, create a more positive atmosphere and most importantly of all, to pray for the repose of the deceased person’s soul.
Whilst there is no substitute for a Funeral Mass, we have to accept that a number of liturgies will now take place outside of the Church. How we engage in this is important. In an age of increasingly secular funerals, I believe that the Church has something significant to offer. Regaining a sense of the missional dimension of this particular Corporal Act of Mercy is surely the key.