September 19, 2010 – Surviving a Funeral Workshop

Well even though we still had a feel of summer over the weekend, I am looking forward to the official beginning of fall this week.  Fall is my favorite time of year with the changing colors of the leaves, warm days and cool nights, and of course football!  I used to also enjoy the various pumpkin creations, but my diet will keep me from that.  Just when you thought it was safe to go to Wal-Mart, they have not put the display of various baked goods smack in the middle of the main aisle, complete with pumpkin pie (druel).

Anyway, it was another church weekend for yours truly.  This past Friday and Saturday I attended a workshop with the main focus being on the order of funeral rites.  This was a continuation of the first lay leader of prayer workshop I participated in a few years ago.  The focus of the first one was leading a Sunday celebration in the absence of a priest.  The focus of this one was leading the rites of a funeral, including the Vigil service for the deceased, the rite of committal at the cemetery, and even a funeral liturgy outside of a Mass.

I learned many things over these two days, but one of the things that really took me by surprise was that there are indeed lay people who are actually doing funeral liturgies (without a Mass of course) in emergent cases when a priest or deacon is unavailable.  And sure enough, as you read the rites book there is a provision for this.  This is a real life example of the changing face of the Catholic church and how lay people are being asked to take a more pro-active role in performing some of these rites.  Whether its for the better or worse is a discussion for another time, but the reality is that our current situation with a lack of clergy makes it a necessity.

One of the really valuable things I learned is how the process of a Christian funeral is set up.  As with the Triduum from Holy Thursday night through Easter Sunday, the Christian funeral is set up as a Triduum, with the Vigil service being the first part, the funeral liturgy being the second part, and the rite of committal being the third part.  Have you ever noticed that when a funeral liturgy begins, we do not make the sign of the cross?  This is because the funeral liturgy is a continuation of the “Triduum”, similar to Good Friday.  And as with the Easter Triduum, we hope that the end result will be a resurrection and eternal life with God.

I also gained a real appreciation of the words that are prayed during the funeral rites.  I think we as Catholics are guilty of sitting in our pews and reciting our lines time after time without stopping to really think about what the words mean we are saying – they just become a bunch of jumbled words.  The funeral rites contain some beautiful wording.  For example, the concluding blessing of the Vigil for the deceased begins: “Blessed are those who have died in the Lord; let them rest from their labors for their good deeds go with them.”  What a beautiful way to begin the process of placing our loved ones into the Lord’s hands. 

It was truly a “hands-on” workshop, complete with a casket.  Larry Gross and I somehow were put in charge on moving the coffin from inside the parish hall at Freeburg to our makeshift “cemetery” outside of the hall.  I don’t think I could ever be a funeral director, but if if anyone ever needs a casket driven, I’m your man.

One other thing that struck me about the workshop: even though the topic seemed “morbid”, there was still plenty of laughter to be had, especially when the people were describing their various funeral experiences, such as what the wind can do to things at the cemetery (holy water being blown away, etc.), choices of songs that people wished to have sung at their funeral (O Danny Boy seemed to be a popular choice).  What Fr. Gene said in his homily this past weekend was so true, that believers in God certainly express grief in our loss, but can also find the joy in knowing that our loved one is cradled in God’s arms.

Weekends such as this remind me why I love my God and my faith.  In the midst of our world that seems to go faster and faster, I had the opportunity to spend 2 days in thought, prayer and learning, then this morning I was honored to join my fellow teachers and catechists in being commissioned to pass our faith on to our children for another year.  Finally, I got to meet my new PSR class for this year, which is always an exciting time.  Times such as this give me a renewed hope and a renewed spirit to face upcoming days.  Thanks be to God!

Among the stories shared at our workshop was this one: a young Baptist minister was assigned to the backwoods of Kentucky.  When the time came for his first funeral, he could not find the cemetery.  He drove on all of the backroads he could find when he finally saw a backhoe and a couple of workers placing a lid on what appeared to be a concrete box and moving dirt.  The minister thought “Oh my gosh, I missed the service!  I should go and say some prayers anyway.”  So he asked the workers if they could pause for a few minutes while he prayed, and they agreed.  The workers really seemed interested in what he was saying, so he continued to preach until he finished the full sermon he had planned to give and then some.  When the minister finished, he thanked the workers for being so attentive to what he was saying.  One of the workers said, “That’s OK, Preacher.  In my 30 years on the job, I’ve never seen anyone be so passionate about a new septic tank.”

Peace.

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