Caring for body and soul: Funerals have effect on the living and the dead

Photo illustration by Lisa Johnston
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Father Nicholas Smith has experienced many special moments: baptisms, weddings, you name it. But there's one he won't soon forget.

In June, Msgr. Joseph Pins passed away from cancer. He was the beloved rector of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis; Father Smith, director of the Office of Sacred Worship, was friends with Msgr. Pins for years and lived together at the cathedral basilica's rectory for two years.

Losing a friend and mentor was a significant loss for Father Smith. As family and cathedral basilica staff were preparing for the funeral, Father Smith had an idea: could several priest friends dress Msgr. Pins in his vestments?

"For some reason, that idea popped into my mind," Father Smith said, "because I knew there was a tradition of priests doing that." He spoke to a cathedral basilica parishioner, who works at the funeral home that was handling the arrangements. It could be done.

"We dressed him in his cassock and his chausible," Father Smith recalled. "Of course, it was touching. It was the most meaningful experience to go there and dress him. I had this vision of him watching down on us as we were tugging on him," he added with a laugh. "I will never forget that as long as I live."

The example is a meaningful convergence of the importance of life and death. In death, we believe that we are born into eternal life. We pray for the souls of the dead, with the hope they meet their eternal reward, God in Heaven; and at the end of time, our bodies and souls will be reunited through a Resurrection. When someone dies, the loved ones who are still living find moments of God's presence in the comfort they receive in their time of grief.

So when people say funerals are to aid the souls of the faithful departed, and when others say funerals are for the living, both are hitting on very important ideas.

Death into new life

It's common for people to offer prayers for the deceased. Sometimes that's a person expressing her intention to pray for the person, or offering a small stipend to have a Mass celebrated for the deceased. Either way, prayer is a powerful aid in helping the deceased to Heaven.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that "after death (the faithful) undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven" (CCC 1030-32). The practice of praying for the dead is traced back to Scripture (see related).

"Funeral rites are for the dead," said Father Smith, who will be leading a workshop in November on Christian funerals and burial. "Because of our belief in purgatory, we pray for the dead. This is why we have these beautiful prayers for the individual who has died."

The Church places great respect and reverence upon the deceased person's body, which is why burial of the body (or burial of the entirety of cremated remains) is taught. Even those who donate their bodies to science should consider a program that offers proper burial of the remains in accordance with Church teaching. (St. Louis University's body donation program, for example, buries remains at Sts. Peter and Paul Cemetery in south St. Louis.)

"The Holy Spirit dwelt in that body," said Father Smith. "Because of that, we treat those remains with respect. That's the reason why the Catholic Church wants those remains to be together," rather than scattering them at sea or splitting the remains among family members. "There's also something about going to visit the place where this person is buried. We especially do that during the month of November," at the feasts of All Saints and All Souls (Nov. 1 and 2).

In some ways, American culture has "sterilized death," which has contributed to a loss of understanding, within the Christian context, of the importance of respecting and praying for the deceased.

"People would put this in their wills," said Father Smith. "My grandparents put a note in their lock box that a Mass was to be celebrated every month. Do people do that anymore, other than maybe the anniversary of the death?"

People sometimes make a donation to a charity or research organization because they feel it's a way to remember the deceased and help in some small way here on earth. But a Mass card? Not always as likely.

"People are less likely to put in $5 (stipend) for a Mass, because they can't see the immediate benefit," said Father Smith.

God sends "angels"

George Kriegshauser knows funerals better than most people. He's a fourth-generation funeral home director. His great-grandfather, George Kriegshauser, started a funeral service business with his wife, Rose, in St. Louis in 1891.

After graduating from college in 1977 with a business degree, George Kriegshauser wasn't planning on getting involved in the family business. His uncle asked him to interview for a job, though, and soon enough, George Kriegshauser went on to earn his funeral director and embalmer's licenses.

Good thing, because Kriegshauser has found many "God moments" in serving grieving families.

In many ways, funerals are for the living, said Kriegshauser, a member of Our Lady of the Pillar Parish in Creve Coeur. "People look for interaction with friends and family" at the death of a loved one. "There's a lot of comfort and support to them. It's pretty powerful when your friends all come to see you" at the funeral home. "That's where I see God really working."

Kriegshauser has seen varied traditional practices with the visitation and has worked at funeral homes in Missouri, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. In Louisiana funeral homes, for example, it's common to find the space for food is bigger than the space where the deceased person is placed. Food is a big deal -- a way for family and friends to show their love for the grieving. Kriegshauser recalled the story of a woman who told him that "sometimes the boudin arrives before the body." (Boudin is a sausage used in Cajun cuisine.)

Helping plan the funeral Mass and arrangements for the visitation, if desired, are ways that can assist the living in their time of grief and provide an opportunity to express their love for the deceased, said Kriegshauser. That can include family members placing the white funeral pall over the casket, or designating others to read, serve and present the offertory gifts at the Mass.

Even so, some funeral services are changing.

"People's needs and wants are changing," said Kriegshauser. "We're living longer. So what we need in our 60s is different than at 80." The family of a person who lived in a nursing home for the last decade of life might not need a larger final farewell compared to the family of someone who died in a car accident or from a sudden illness.

"We always ask families who needs a final farewell," he said. "Are there people out of town? Are there kids away at school?" Sometimes that means the difference between a longer visitation or a more simple final viewing that lasts only an hour or so.

Kriegshauser said the most difficult moments for him are the services for the deceased who have no family or families who don't exhibit sadness over the family member's death. "When I see people with big tears, that's a good thing," he said. "It means you've had such a great relationship with that person; they've been given a great gift."

Funerals are an opportunity for people to express their condolences to the family. "God is sending all these little 'angels' along to be there for them. That is meaningful."

A word (or two) about purgatory

What is purgatory?

The state of purgatory can be likened to that of a time of cleansing, or purification, before experiencing eternal life in heaven.

The Catholic Church teaches that purgatory is a time of purification for those who "die in God's grace and friendship."

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1030-32), "after death (the faithful) undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven."

Likewise, "the Church gives the name purgatory to this final purification for the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned."

Likewise, the teaching on purgatory is based on the practice of praying for the dead, which is traced back to Sacred Scripture:

"Therefore, (Judas Maccabeus) made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin" (2 Macc 12:46)."

The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance, which are undertaken on behalf of the dead.

Why do we pray for the poor souls in purgatory?

Souls in purgatory need our prayers, simply because they cannot pray for themselves.

That's why the Church teaches that prayer, almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance can be undertaken for the dead.

Previous generations used to employ the saying, "offer it up for the souls in purgatory" anytime an individual experienced some sort of suffering.

"I think maybe if we were to try to talk to people more in our preaching about hell — not to scare them, but to be realistic — then maybe purgatory could be seen in the proper light that it is in fact part of our destiny," said Father Bede Price, OSB. "Which is if we were a little more serious about penance in this life there wouldn't be much in the next.

"We don't like penance, we don't like fasting, and we don't fundamentally like denying ourselves anything," he said. "But you either do it now or you do it later, but sooner or later you do it." 

The celebration of funerals

• The Christian funeral is a liturgical celebration of the Church. The ministry of the Church in this instance aims at expressing efficacious communion with the deceased, at the participation in that communion of the community gathered for the funeral, and at the proclamation of eternal life to the community.

• The Order of Christian Funerals of the Roman liturgy gives three types of funeral celebrations, corresponding to the three places in which they are conducted (the home, the church, and the cemetery), and according to the importance attached to them by the family, local customs, the culture and popular piety. This order of celebration is common to all the liturgical traditions and comprises four principal elements:

• The greeting of the community. A greeting of faith begins the celebration. Relatives and friends of the deceased are welcomed with a word of "consolation" (in the New Testament sense of the Holy Spirit's power in hope). The community assembling in prayer also awaits the "words of eternal life." The death of a member of the community (or the anniversary of a death, or the seventh or thirtieth day after death) is an event that should lead beyond the perspectives of "this world" and should draw the faithful into the true perspective of faith in the risen Christ.

• The liturgy of the Word during funerals demands very careful preparation because the assembly present for the funeral may include some faithful who rarely attend the liturgy, and friends of the deceased who are not Christians. The homily in particular must "avoid the literary genre of funeral eulogy"and illumine the mystery of Christian death in the light of the risen Christ.

• The Eucharistic Sacrifice. When the celebration takes place in church the Eucharist is the heart of the Paschal reality of Christian death. In the Eucharist, the Church expresses her efficacious communion with the departed: offering to the Father in the Holy Spirit the sacrifice of the death and resurrection of Christ, she asks to purify his child of his sins and their consequences, and to admit him to the Paschal fullness of the table of the Kingdom. It is by the Eucharist thus celebrated that the community of the faithful, especially the family of the deceased, learn to live in communion with the one who "has fallen asleep in the Lord," by communicating in the Body of Christ of which he is a living member and, then, by praying for him and with him.

• A farewell to the deceased is his final "commendation to God" by the Church. It is "the last farewell by which the Christian community greets one of its members before his body is brought to its tomb."

Source: Catechism of the Catholic Church (1684-1690) 

Resurrection of the body

How do the dead rise?

• What is "rising?" In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus' Resurrection.

• Who will rise? All the dead will rise, "those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment."

• How? Christ is raised with His own body: "See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself"; but He did not return to an earthly life. So, in Him, "all of them will rise again with their own bodies which they now bear," but Christ "will change our lowly body to be like His glorious body," into a "spiritual body." This "how" exceeds our imagination and understanding; it is accessible only to faith. Yet our participation in the Eucharist already gives us a foretaste of Christ's transfiguration of our bodies.

• When? Definitively "at the last day," "at the end of the world." Indeed, the resurrection of the dead is closely associated with Christ's Parousia.

Source: Catechism of the Catholic Church (997-1001) 

To bury the dead

The archdiocesan Office of Sacred Worship will host a workshop on the rituals and rites of the Catholic funeral from 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17, at the Cardinal Rigali Center, 20 Archbishop May Drive in Shrewsbury.

The workshop is geared toward anyone who is interested in refreshing their knowledge of the Catholic funeral, including priests, deacons, seminarians, hospital chaplains, parish grief ministry teams, liturgy commissions and the lay faithful.

Topics will include rituals and funeral planning, the funeral director's role, the funeral Mass and burial and cremation. There also will be a closing panel discussion.

To register, visit www.stlouisreview.com/TVN; or contact Amy Buehrle with the Office of Sacred Worship at amybuerhle@archstl.org. 

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