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Some readers will remember what funerals were like prior to the reform of the rites after Vatican II. Someone once described them to me as ‘black’ – the whole thing not just the colour of the priest’s vestments!
Perhaps that is why the funeral rites were among the first to be revised. The new Order of Christian Funerals (OFC) was published in Latin in 1969. After a process of re-revision, translation and approval, the Order of Christian Funerals for use in Australia was issued in 1989.
Three elements were emphasised in the new rites: the importance of the collaboration of the family, the presider and various ministers in their celebration; the necessity of adapting the rites to local culture and the particular circumstances of the deceased and the bereaved; the use of three progressive rites reflecting the various stages of the grieving process.
The three funeral rites are the Vigil, the Funeral Liturgy and the Committal. Each has its own particular purpose, tone and structure.
The Vigil is intended to be celebrated soon after death has occurred. It is an opportunity for family and friends to come together to express shock and sorrow and to offer condolences. The structure of the Vigil is simple and adaptable. It allows mourners to be consoled by the word of God, to pray together and to share memories. It might be held in a home, church or chapel and in the presence of the body or not.
The Funeral Liturgy comes a few days after death when the initial shock of loss has subsided a little. It is the public ceremony which acquaintances, colleagues and more distant family will attend along with the immediate family and close friends.
The Funeral Liturgy has a formal structure with a set pattern of readings, homily, prayers, symbols and gestures. It may include the celebration of Eucharist depending on family and other circumstances.
The Committal is the last of the church’s rituals for marking the death of one of its members. It is an important step in the process of ‘closure’ as the bodily remains of the deceased are committed to the earth and his/her soul to God’s loving mercy.
Problems arise when, as often happens, the three rites are telescoped into one for economic, social or personal reasons.
The Funeral Liturgy cannot fulfil successfully the roles of the Vigil and Committal as well as its own. It becomes overloaded, overlong and loses its focus. Abbreviating the rituals of grieving can limit, or even hamper, the process of grieving.
There seems to be a lack of clarity about the purpose of a funeral. A funeral is not, despite what many funeral notices say, a celebration of the life of the deceased. Certainly, we give thanks to God for the one who has died, but a funeral is about much more than that.
A funeral is not our way of saying farewell to our family and friends, as one lady who had fully prepared her own funeral service once told me. Hopefully we can find other ways to do this before we die!
The Christian funeral offers worship, praise and thanksgiving to God, the creator of all life; it commends the deceased person to God’s merciful love; it affirms the bonds between the living and the dead in the communion of saints; it brings hope and consolation to the bereaved; it celebrates Christ’s Passover and our participation in it through Christian initiation.