As our ti morceaux continue to focus on the funeral rituals of the Church, it’s time for us to move on from consideration of the preliminary rituals like the wake and vigil to the more central service itself. The other rituals and prayers offered by family, friends and parish community at death lead up to it and indeed draw their meaning from it.
The Church in her Order of Christian Funerals provides that “The Mass, the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, is the principal celebration of the Christian funeral” (no. 5). While strictly-speaking there is no obligation to have a Funeral Mass for one who is deceased, it is a time-honored tradition which honors the memory of that person and his/her faith, as well as offers spiritual benefits. And these spiritual benefits are not only advantageous to the departed one, they also are significant for the living who assemble in faith for the funeral.
Why do we offer a Funeral Mass for the dead? There are many reasons. The first purpose the Church offers is “to offer worship, praise and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now been returned to God.” As such, speaking well of the dead at the time of their passing and even within the Funeral Mass is a wholly appropriate thing. Yet it is not the only reason for funerals. “The Church through its funeral rites commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sins” (see OCF, no. 6). Every human being is a sinner, and many are chronically guilty of extremely serious sin; it is not unlikely that some who choose to live apart from God in this world need much purification in the next. Thus our prayers and other good works offered up on behalf of those who can no longer help themselves remain most important works of charity and mercy which we can provide them. Finally, of course, the “funeral brings hope and consolation to the living” who have lost a loved one and quite naturally turn to God, especially if the death has been sudden or especially unfortunate.
From time to time over the course of centuries, in the various times and cultures in which the Church has ministered, these different emphases have often been expressed in various ways. We will look at some of the ways in which they remain part of the Funeral Mass still today in our next morceau.