Don’t leave funeral planning until it’s too late

The funeral of a Dominican sister in Tennessee last year (CNS)

Like any priest, I spend a good deal of time supporting those who are planning the funeral of their loved ones. All too often, I find, families do not know what their loved ones’ wishes were. I will try to guide families, but there is added sense of pressure when conversations about the funeral have not taken place beforehand or where no plan is in place.

Sadly, many families approach this time with a much more consumerist mindset than in previous generations. Families who don’t know the significance of Catholic liturgy will often, with the best intentions, come with ideas which may not reflect those of their loved one who was a committed Catholic. All too often this is not helped by funeral directors who gain financially from adding all sorts of extras to a funeral plan. In a worst case scenario, I knew a very faithful daily Mass-goer who unfortunately left no plan, no instructions in her will and didn’t talk to her family about it. She would have been devastated to know that her family opted only for a twenty minute service at the local crematorium.

Ensuring that our wishes are known can prevent this happening. It can also show our love to our family members by taking a great deal of pressure off their shoulders in what is already a traumatic time.

Moreover, having a candid and open discussion with our families about our death and our funeral wishes allows us to share our faith with them. Many parishioners talk with me about the sadness that they experience because their loved ones no longer practice the faith. Having the courage to talk about death and our own wishes gives a strong witness to the uncertainty of life and the personal hope that we find in the death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Before we have such discussions, we need to know what we want and why. When we choose to have a funeral Mass we make a statement about the need to pray for our eternal souls. We also place all that is happening within the context of Christ’s death and resurrection. If we explain this to our family members then when the time comes, the Mass will hopefully become much more meaningful and comforting for them.

With the costs of funerals rising, more and more people are considering cremation  – but many Catholics are still uncertain where the Church stands. The Vatican lifted the ban on cremation in 1963: it is an acceptable option providing that the cremated remains are buried in an appropriate place and never scattered or divided. My local crematorium offers to create jewellery using the ashes. As Catholics, we wish to emphasis the Resurrection of the body; so even when we are cremated we should be conscious of the need for this good news to be proclaimed by maintaining the integrity and dignity of any remains.

Often we go to great lengths to avoid talking our thinking about death. Ironically, death is something we encounter daily in the news, in films, television and in literature. The difficulty comes in talking about death more personally. It remains a taboo in our secular society. As our average lifespan has extended, it seems to have become much harder to broach the subject. The Victorians had a much more open approach.

As Catholics we should be able to face death with confidence because of our foundational belief in the Resurrection. I do see encouraging signs of this. Increasingly, children attend funerals, which used not to be the case. In my own parish, especially during school holidays, children from the parish will serve the Mass and often grandchildren of the deceased will offer to read or give a tribute. This approach helps to normalise death.

The Church wants to help us to talk about death and our own wishes. The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has a good and accessible website which covers very widely issues surrounding death and dying and within the Archdiocese of Birmingham, The Pastoral Care Project provides a plan with instructions for funeral Masses. But in the end, there is no substitute for talking in a loving and open way with our families – to make sure we get the funeral we want, and to witness to our hope.

Fr Pittam is the author of Building the Kingdom in the Classroom: A School Chaplains Diary