Catholics have hope in the resurrection and the culmination of that belief is evident in a funeral Mass.
“It’s an opportunity for us to reconfirm and celebrate our faith in Jesus, our crucified and risen Lord. To pray for the repose of the person’s soul and God’s mercy on them,” said Father Bill Elser, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Hot Springs Village.
However, while Catholics go to great lengths to plan everything from baptisms to weddings, funerals often are an afterthought, falling to the family to organize after a loved one’s death.
Laura Humphries, who has helped grieving families put together funerals for the past eight years at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock and also helps run the grief ministry, said she always encourages pre-planning with a parish, but many do not.
“I think from a grief ministry standpoint it’s difficult because you’re in a state of shock and that’s normal number one, very normal, and you’re already in a very stressful situation....” she said. “If you have all those things done, it just makes the life of those left behind so much easier.”
Both parishes offer a simple checklist outlining how to plan a Catholic funeral Mass, including hymn choices, whether a casket or urn will be present, who will lector and Scripture choices and, at Sacred Heart, the option to livestream. The structure for funeral Masses and requirements of the Church is defined in the “Order of Christian Funerals.”
“It does force us to accept the reality we are going to die,” Father Elser said, but planning is “an act of faith and certainly it helps the priest to know what the person wanted because in this day and age, their children and grandchildren can have their own ideas of what to do with a funeral, rosary and things like that. It certainly helps the priest if we have on file ‘this is what your loved one really wanted.’”
The primary decision a Catholic needs to make is whether they will be buried or cremated. A Mass of Resurrection can be celebrated three ways:
with a body in a casket present followed by interment at the cemetery
with a body in a casket present, followed by cremation and interment at a later date
cremains present in an urn, followed by interment
Father Elser pointed out while cremations are more popular, “the Church allows for cremation, it permits it, it does not promote it as the first option. The first option in all instances is to have the body present at the Mass of Resurrection so we can honor the person who is baptized.”
The Church also requires cremated remains to be buried or placed in a columbarium.
A person can rent a casket from a funeral home to have their body at Mass and cremated after, but Father Elser admits many choose cremation only because of cost and other practical reasons.
At the start of Mass, a casket or urn is blessed with holy water as a reminder of baptism. A white funeral pall is placed over a casket, sometimes by the children of the deceased to signify how they clothed the children in white in baptism and they are in turn covering their loved one in death. A pall is not placed on an urn. Just as a casket can have a crucifix or other religious objects placed upon it, so can a table with an urn at the front of the altar. However, photographs are not appropriate in the sanctuary, but can be displayed in the vestibule so as not to distract, Father Elser said.
If a person is being interred immediately following Mass, which is customary, Father Elser pointed out the Mass does not end at the church, but at the gravesite. A recessional hymn is played as a way to start the trek to the burial site, with the priest saying, “Let us take our brother or sister to his or her place of rest.”
“The Church gives us in the Lectionary for Mass and Funerals quite a few choices from the Old Testament, New Testament and Gospel readings,” Father Elser said. “... Back when I was growing up, every funeral was the same. I got to the point where I had those passages memorized” as an altar server.
Sacred music options are more varied, Father Elser said, but added “I believe the Church would insist on congregational or religious-based hymns, no secular songs.”
However, as a prelude before Mass, he has allowed other appropriate music to be played that may not be considered a Catholic hymn.
Outside of the Church, eulogies are customary during funerals, with someone speaking about a deceased person’s life. While Father Elser said “that’s not really a Catholic thing,” the Church does allow for short “remarks of remembrance,” typically right before Mass or at the end before the final commendation.
He encourages a loved one to do it before Mass, so they can focus on the hopeful nature of a funeral instead of being nervous about speaking. Remarks should point to a person’s faith and other appropriate qualities.
“I’ve learned in 34 years of priesthood to be pastoral and when people experience the loss of a loved one you have to walk the line and the balance between what is promoted, what the Church has for its funeral liturgies and somewhat people’s personal preferences,” he said.
Humphries said sometimes people do not realize they are responsible for finding a lector, musician, gift bearers, altar servers and choosing a priest as celebrant. Although a parish assists in this effort, it can be much a smoother process with pre-planning.
Father Elser said some parishes charge for use of the church and hall or if a family or the deceased is not a member of that parish, but most do not charge a fee.
The funeral home, however, does charge a fee for planning a service and transportation of the body. It is also customary to pay a small stipend to the musicians, priest and also a deacon if present.
“Normally when you go to Mass, all of that is taken care of. The lectors are there,” Humphries said, but added for funerals, “Normally a member of the family or a close personal friend” serves as a lector.
Humphries and Father Elser both strongly recommend a person share their funeral plans with close family.
“I always tell people when they purchase a niche at the columbarium, please tell your family this is what you’ve done and where it is so they don’t do something else,” she said. “You want your family to know everything … if the parent has already written out the way they wanted it, it does keep from having any hard feelings in the family.”
At Holy Souls, copies are given to the person pre-planning to keep and share with family and are also kept at the church.
“I definitely told my people to have a copy at church and at least one for your loved ones, especially if there is only one spouse left,” Father Elser said. “If you’re a widow or widower, to make sure your children know, not just know verbally because it makes a big difference if something is in writing and we have a copy as well because we know what the person wants.”
Beyond making it easier for loved ones and ensuring the funeral is how a person wishes it to be, it’s leaving a legacy of faith.
“It gives people an opportunity to put their final faith-filled stamp on not only their life, but for their family, the hope of the person that’s deceased, the hope they wish for their family to have” in Christ, Father Elser said.
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