How to restore the meaning of funeral Masses – and save some money

The funeral of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in Washington DC earlier this year (CNS)

The Daily Telegraph’s financial pages tell us something that we all know to be true: that the cost of funerals is going up. You can read the whole article here. But what is really intriguing is the way experts suggest you can save a great deal of money by doing things a little differently. One way, for example, is not to employ a funeral director, but to take on the role yourself. This would be quite easy to do, provided you had the right guidance – most of us have to organise funerals very rarely.

One money-saving tip struck me as worth consideration for Catholics. It is this:

Consider a direct burial or cremation. This is where the body disposal is separate from the service. The direct option is as Ms Inman-Cook put it – ‘the funeral without the funeral’. The body is taken straight from the hospital or home to the crematorium. The family does not tend to have a choice in when or where the body is buried or cremated – it is done as and when there is a slot. Families can then plan their own farewell ceremony separately. It’s significantly cheaper than a traditional funeral – specialist firms may charge around £800 to £1,000 and a direct burial is priced about £1,800. Ms Inman-Cook says it’s a popular option in the USA and many are becoming more interested in the UK where there are currently about 20 firms offering the service.

In other words, one can ask a firm to remove and cremate the remains, and then plan a Requiem Mass which is not coram cadavere, that is, with the body present. Because this Requiem would not involve a coffin, it would not need undertakers either, and could be held at any time of day, including the evenings or Saturdays, which would enable people to come without having to take time off work. One could, of course, have the ashes present, when they are entrusted to the family.

What this would do – quite apart from save money – is shift the focus of the funeral away from the coffin and its proper disposal and onto the Mass and the act of worship and prayer for the dead. Saving money may be a hobby for the rich, but a necessity to the poor, so is not to be sniffed at. The focus on the liturgical act would be another gain, from the Catholic point of view.

Incidentally, most funerals these days in Britain are cremations, and the Catholic Church has long abandoned its opposition to cremation, while at the same time pointing to burial as a most traditional and Christian way of disposing of the body. Moreover, many of the cremations carried out today are what is called “direct to crem” by undertakers, without any Church service first. This is not desirable, as it is far more fitting the deceased is remembered in his or her own parish Church, which, as a building, is more suitable for Christian worship than a crematorium chapel. The direct cremation mentioned above would get over the idea of using the crematorium as a substitute for the parish church.

At present many families like to produce Orders of Service for funeral Masses. There is a tendency to entitle these orders as “Mass in memory of John Smith”. This is incorrect. Each and every Mass is the memorial of Jesus Christ. It would be correct, however, to say “Mass for the repose of the soul of John Smith”, for that is the whole purpose of the funeral Mass, to celebrate the anamnesis of Jesus Christ so that John Smith might be released from his sins. But sin, as we all know, is not such a popular topic as it once was. Indeed the sacrificial nature of the Requiem Mass has tended to be obscured these days thanks to the desire to celebrate someone’s life. The celebratory aspect has its place, but that should happen once the Mass is over.

Could a “funeral without the funeral” restore the Mass to its proper place? Could it also lead to a revival of Masses for the dead, which are such a vital part of Catholic life, but which seem only to be offered by the older generation these days? After all, in the end, it is the Mass that counts! Would most parish priests be happy to go along with this idea?