St. Angela takes guesswork out of funeral prep

While many Catholics go to great lengths to pick out their casket, funeral location and burial plot, most of them do not realize that they can also pre-plan their funeral liturgy.

St. Angela Merici Parish in Metairie has taken the idea of early liturgical planning to a whole new level by offering regularly scheduled, one-hour workshops that help parishioners plan the funeral Mass they want, while staying within the church’s liturgical guidelines.

“They can pick their own readings. They can pick their own hymns,” said Sister of Mount Carmel Paula Derise, who added the role of “funeral planning coordinator” to her list of responsibilities in 2006 at the request of Msgr. Kenneth Hedrick, St. Angela’s pastor.

“The main advantage is that it’s done – your family doesn’t have to make these big, emotional decisions after your death,” Sister Paula said.

Honoring their wishes

Over the years, Sister Paula, St. Angela’s director of religious education, has seen the bereaved spend hours just deciding which readings to use at a loved one’s funeral Mass. Some siblings are so estranged from one another, they don’t even want to be in the same room – especially when the interaction involves nailing down sensitive liturgical arrangements, she said.

“By having (the decedents) plan their funeral liturgy, even if their children don’t follow it, they’ll know what Momma wanted; they’ll know what Daddy wanted. It will help them try to honor their wishes,” said Sister Paula, noting that the selections must be in accord with guidelines set forth in “The Order of Christian Funerals.”

Choices can be made early

In addition to the two readings – taken from the Old and New Testaments, respectively – those planning their funeral liturgy can list their desired altar servers, lectors, gift bearers, intercession readers and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. They can also choose the person who will place the pall – the white cloth symbolizing baptism – atop their casket. Except for the pall-handler, who can be Catholic or non-Catholic, all Mass assistants must be practicing Catholics, Sister Paula said.

The Gospel reading is selected by the priest or deacon who celebrates the funeral liturgy. The Gospel will be used as the basis for the preaching of the homily.

“And we usually do not let (the person planning his or her funeral Mass) pick the Gospel acclamation or the responsorial psalm, because you want the music minister to do that,” Sister Paula said, “but sometimes they really want a particular psalm, and so we’ll do it for them.”

Using St. Angela’s convenient liturgy planning sheet, parishioners can mix and match general intercessions listed in “Form A” and “Form B” of the funeral worship guide. There is also a space in which they can list the pre-deceased immediate relatives they want to remember, by name, during their funeral.

Symbol of ‘Christian living’

Another funeral-related decision Catholics can make in advance is whether they want a special crucifix, cross or Bible to be placed on top of their casket, after the pall is in place. The chosen object is meant to be “a symbol of your Christian living,” Sister Paula said, and the keepsake is returned to the family after the funeral.

“We ask families, ‘What is your favorite Bible?’ It can be falling apart. We don’t care,” Sister Paula said.

Suggested hymns handy

Musical selections are facilitated for parishioners by offering them a list of suggested hymns compiled by Peter Weilbaecher, St. Angela’s longtime minister of music (see box on page 3). The suggested hymns all are included in the parish’s hymnal – “Word and Song” – to encourage maximum participation.

“People can choose other hymns, but these are the songs that our parishioners sing,” Sister Paula said. “They know these songs, and we want the congregation singing; we don’t want just the cantor doing the singing, unless it’s the presentation of the gifts, where the cantor has the option to sing a solo.”

The “Ave Maria,” a popular musical request, may be sung or played as a prelude to the liturgy, but not during it, she adds.

Words of Remembrance

Sister Paula said the funeral-planning request she denies most often is for a eulogy. At Catholic funerals, a personal reflection on the life of the deceased is optional. It is delivered before Mass begins and is called “Words of Remembrance.”

“People come in wanting eulogies, and they want them after Communion, and we say, ‘No, we do ours ahead of time,’” Sister Paula said. “The liturgy is sacred as liturgy. (Words of Remembrance are) always done before Mass, so the liturgy is not interrupted.”

At St. Angela, the remarks must be no more than five minutes in length and a copy of the text must be given to the celebrant at least 24 hours before the funeral, Sister Paula said.

“We want it to be about (the decedent’s) faith life, their family life, the love that they spread to other people,” said Sister Paula, who adds that running the text by the celebrant also helps him prepare for funerals of those he doesn’t know well or at all. Sister Paula also interviews the bereaved family to glean information on the decedent’s faith journey.

“One family mentioned how their mother would bake a special cake for each child,” recalls Sister Paula. “Father Ken picked that up in his homily. That was one of the ways she showed love.”

There for the Mass

In their quest to take as much anxiety and guesswork out of funeral preparation for surviving family members, Sister Paula and four lay parishioners share duties as “emcees” of church-based funeral Masses and also coordinate with area funeral homes for services that take place outside the physical church.

At St. Angela, the team’s duties include providing the stand for cremains, easels for photo collages and moving items such as flowers and other memorials before Mass begins.

Those who have active roles in the funeral arrive early for a brief practice, but Sister Paula and her assistants are on hand throughout the liturgy, leading readers to the ambo, pointing to the readings in the missal, cueing gift bearers and even keeping the Communion lines even.

“People who have had funerals here (at St. Angela) think it’s so impressive that they don’t have to think. We think for them,” Sister Paula said. “We do everything we can to make the liturgy go smoothly.”

Beth Donze can be reached at

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