Cremation, eulogies are frequently misunderstood

The death of a loved one is an overwhelmingly stressful time for a family, and that stress can lead to challenging moments in planning a Catholic funeral.

After consulting with area funeral directors, the archdiocesan Office of Worship has produced a brochure to help grieving families better plan a Catholic funeral, with particular attention paid to two areas of concern and potential misunderstanding: cremation and eulogies.

Msgr. Ken Hedrick, director of the Office of Worship, said the tri-fold brochure, written in easy-to-digest language, explains the Catholic Church’s teaching on cremation – yes, Catholics do have the option to consider cremation – and eulogies – while they are not allowed at Catholic funerals, “words of remembrance” are.

The brochure is the byproduct of a meeting held last year that included Msgr. Hedrick, Archbishop Gregory Aymond and funeral directors.

“We wanted to dialogue with them about how we could work together to minister to people at a very critical time in their lives,” Msgr. Hedrick said. “The archbishop addressed some issues that the priests have voiced to him, and we invited the funeral directors to share with us any concerns they have about how we could work better together.”

 

Cremation a big topic

The issues of cremation and eulogies emerged as topics “Catholics did not have a real good grasp on,” Msgr. Hedrick said.

The Order of Christian Funerals, the ritual book used for all Catholic funerals, offers the option of having a vigil service and funeral Mass with the body of the deceased present, with cremation taking place later, followed by interment of the cremated remains (called “cremains”).

Another option is to have the body cremated first and then to hold the visitation, vigil service and funeral Mass with the cremains present.

What is important for Catholics to remember, Msgr. Hedrick said, is that the cremains of the deceased “are always and in every way to be treated just as the body of the deceased would be.”

That means it is not permitted for the cremated remains to be brought home – either “in full or in part.

“We would not do this with the body of a deceased loved one,” Msgr. Hedrick said. “We do not do this with cremated remains either.”

According to the Order of Christian Funerals, the cremated remains “should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering the remains on the sea, from the air or in the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition the church requires.”

Archdiocesan policy is that a priest or deacon may not preside at a funeral without the guarantee that the cremains will be interred at the conclusion of the funeral rites.

 

‘Words of remembrance’

The typically understood practice of delivering a “eulogy” is not allowed at a Catholic funeral, Msgr. Hedrick said. The “relatively new” option that is allowed in the revised Order of Christian Funerals is to have only one person deliver “words of remembrance.”

“It’s not a eulogy in the popular understanding of what eulogy means,” Msgr. Hedrick said. “It is words of remembrance, a sharing by one person from the family or friends, sharing with us that person’s faith journey.”

There have been times at a funeral where words of remembrance have become “either just jokes, which masks sorrow, or remembrances of all the things that are not going to happen any more on this plane,” Msgr. Hedrick said.

Words of remembrance should focus “solely on the faith life of the deceased, not on anecdotal memories,” Msgr. Hedrick said. “The spirit of the words of remembrance is, ‘Lord, this is how we saw this person live, and therefore we are confident we can let this person go into your heart.’”

The words of remembrance may be offered at one of the following times: during the wake service, following the concluding prayer and before the blessing and dismissal; before the funeral Mass following the prayers for the transfer of the body to the church or chapel; at the conclusion of the visitation and before the beginning of the funeral Mass.

 

Sequence is important

Msgr. Hedrick said placing the words of remembrance before Mass – and not after Communion – is important.

“One of the frustrations that I’ve heard with some of the words that are spoken is that in a sense they take us backwards instead of moving us forward,” he said. “When you start talking about how grandma liked to go to Saints games or loved to play keno, instead of this beginning to be the moment where we can say it’s OK to say goodbye, it takes us backwards to the point where we’re starting to cry all over again.

“That’s not to say that by the end of the committal rite, it’s all over and we don’t grieve any more. We all grieve at our own pace. But doing it before Mass also sets a context for the liturgy. We can say, ‘Well, that’s who that person in their spirit was. Now we can celebrate the eucharistic resurrection. Now we can move on.’ The prayers of committal and the prayers of release allow us to say, ‘It’s OK to say goodbye. We are people of faith, hope, confidence and trust in God’s love and presence.’”

The brochures have been delivered to area funeral homes and churches and are now in their second printing, said Betty-Ann Hickey, associate director of the Office of Worship.

“Some parishes are making them available in the back of church, and some are making them available when people come in to make funeral arrangements,” she said. “They’ve been extremely well received.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

 

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