I am struggling with the best way to respond to such requests with both pastoral and liturgical integrity.
At Crematoria, it is inevitably expected that music at the family's choice can be played as people gather and once the service has finished. But during the Catholic ceremony at a Crematorium, and at any service in a Catholic Church, which is a place of worship, the ethos is one of worship. So when the mourners ask for their loved one's favourite song to be prayed in church, I politely decline, explaining that because they have chosen a church service, my role is to provide a service of prayer, and we restrict the kind of things we allow in order to keep the atmosphere prayerful.
Similarly, once a coffin arrives in church, the presence of the body of the deceased is a primary liturgical focus. I don't mind if it arrives and departs covered with a football shirt or a floral tribute, but once at the foot of the altar, everyone is treated the same in death - a white pall, a Bible and a Crucifix. It is the body which the Church honours as a baptised temple of the Holy Spirit, the vessel of a soul which has now gone to God. I suggest that if the family wishes to place a photograph of the deceased, this can be done next to the main exit so everyone sees it as they leave - the OCF says "no other symbols" are to be placed on or near the coffin.
I do allow some flexibility in the "words in memory" slot. If a particular family wishes to remember their loved one by reading a poem or having someone sing a short song, I interpret that as a particular way of offering words in memory and allow it - but only at that slot which the Church explicitly allows as a moment to remember the person.
Not infrequently then, I am in the position of explaining to grieving families that they can't always have exactly what they want at a funeral, because that's not the way the Catholic Church does things, and because my role is to conduct a prayerful service rather than a musical tribute ceremony. This causes the family some distress; in some cases my decision is accepted gracefully, but in others it provokes vigorous protest.
I do not wish to cause needless distress to grieving families; I would like to use this thread for your help to think through WHY we say "no" to certain requests.
1. The Law
The OCF is amazingly flexible when it comes to the range of different prayers and different structures which can be used when a person has died, but precribes a religious service with one slot where a family member may "speak in memory" of the deceased.
I could reply to various family requests by simply saying: "You've asked for a Catholic Funeral, and the Catholic Funeral Book doesn't allow such-and-such".
(Inevitably I will be treated to stories of other priests who have allegedly or actually played fast and loose with the rule book.)
2. The Spirit of the Law
Why is the structure of the OCF the way it is? Like our other rites which focus on individuals (baptisms, ordinations, marriages), it is person-focussed but God-centred. The pre-Vatican II funeral rites presumed that the soul now deceased was mired in sin and needed our deep prayers for its cleansing and freedom. This is not a prominent theme in our current texts, but we do still believe that our prayers can be of assistance to the deceased; I usually comment in my introduction to a funeral service that we have gathered "to remember the life of N and to pray for his/her soul, that they may more quickly complete their journey to heaven".
The theory is sound.
By restricting the music to sacred music, and by having a pall-draped coffin as the liturgical focus to the exclusion of football shirts, photographs and the like, what am I communicating?
- * To God, that this is a service which puts the worship of Himself at the centre, with prayer for a particular soul as its focus.
* To the liturgically-minded, all the things I have mentioned above.
* To regular Catholic worshippers, a safe and familiar context for worship.
But then there's...
3. The Pastoral Impact
At funerals (and indeed at baptisms and marriages) I find myself presiding at religious services where a fair percentage of the congregation are not adherents of my religion. Now that needn't be a problem when they have come to honour the choice of a family who have opted for a Catholic baptism or wedding. But at a funeral, the faith may be that of the deceased, while the arrangements are in the hands of those without a strong Catholic identity.
I would like to think that through the use of hymns, readings, prayers and a homily, when I celebrate the kind of ceremony that the OCF prescribes, I will create a liturgical experience that can invite even a thoroughly secularised congregation raise their hearts and minds to God. But does it?
What about those with no or little experience of Catholic (or any) worship? By insisting on these restrictions, am I creating a liturgy which communicates to them something of the reality, presence and transcendence of God?
What about the family mourners who have experienced some distress because I have said "no" to their various requests? They will have very mixed memories of the funeral liturgy.
And how do I best handle my interactions with the family in making the arrangements?
Messages that the grieving family might well experience are:
- * Doing something pleasing to God as a decent act of worship is more important than your feelings.
* Obedience to the Church's rulebook is more important than your feelings.
Surely the spirit of the law is that we shape liturgy the way we do in order to draw people closer to God. But the pastoral impact may well be that we alienate mourners (who are probably non-practicing Catholics or non-Catholics) from the Church.
My question to forum members is twofold:
FIRST, is there a better way to comunicate the Church's restrictions without causing distress to the mourners, and in a way that helps even secularised mourners to understand why we have those restrictions?
SECOND, does the current structure of our funeral liturgy communicate what we'd like it to communicate to a congregation in "new evangelisation" territory? Or do we need to rethink what we're doing in funerals to maximise their evangelistic impact in our current culture? (I am not agitating for disregard of the OCF, but for ideas of how the OCF might be revised, supposing that the new Vatican department for the New Evengelisation got together with the Cogregation for Divine Worship and happened to read this forum as part of their research .)
Over to you!