‘Mass’ at the wake?

Funerals account for much time and energy in this city parish. A phone call from the undertaker asks if a funeral Mass in the church can be arranged for a given day at a given time. When the diary confirms that the day and time are free we get the details; name, address, next of kin contact, cemetery/crematorium etc.
A look at the name and address tells the story often of someone probably unknown to us with an address inside or outside the parish. Parish member or not the first tentative move is a phone call to the next of kin to express sympathy to the bereaved family. After briefly hearing about the final illness and age of the dead person, we generally discover the body is still in the morgue and not yet reposing in the home or funeral parlour. Details to be arranged later! Phone numbers exchanged we await developments. Eventually information is received; the body is reposing at home or in the funeral parlour. Could the priest come for a ‘Mass’ at the wake? This ‘Mass’ merely involves a few ritual prayers with a decade or two of the rosary. Here in this parish any bit of church prayer is a ‘Mass’. And they are grateful for the ‘Mass’.
Sitting down with the family members and giving time, getting to know something about them and learning a bit about the deceased is time consuming but worthwhile. It helps in getting a sense of the life and times of the deceased and the kind of values and issues that mattered to him/her. Result, the priest has some inkling of who is in the coffin at the Mass. When the funeral is a parishioner who is regular and known, the task of celebrating the death of a Christian is relatively easy. The gospel pillars of faith and family laced with a few personal details can be emphasised with confidence.
But when the increasingly normal experience is a funeral for one who has long since lost touch with the church, had ceased to practice the faith and been in an irregular marital situation, the homily is a challenge. Most families prove to be decent, respectful and grateful; they are amazingly unfazed; no embarrassment or apology for the fact that they are unfamiliar with what happens at a Mass these days. When to stand and when to kneel at the Mass become necessary instructions. Regular daily Mass goers lead the way and respond appropriately when the funeral Mass coincides with the daily Mass.
However in the mourners there is an abundance of good will. They are uneasy and are anxious to do all that is necessary to give their loved one a proper and dignified send off with the full obsequies of the church. All families experience a sense of loss at the death of a loved one. While most die as grandparents, there are so many premature deaths from cancer and other causes as well young people who are victims of accidents or suicide. No matter how young or how old, expected or unexpected when death comes to the ordinary family there is sadness, heartbreak and a keen sense of loss.
In this scene the priest has a privileged place. People who have little contact with church – uneasy with ceremony and ritual – anxious and uneasy about protocol, any effort to accommodate and accompany them through the Wake, funeral Mass and burial/cremation is a service not to be underestimated; an important pastoral opportunity not to be missed. So often this is their only contact with the church and our only contact with the different age groups concerned. Also friends and colleagues probably in the same space make a point of being present to express sympathy. Like anyone of us attending a funeral they are compelled to stop and think. Faced with the fact of death, the natural end of human life for us all, the homily will challenge all, believer and unbeliever, to find a meaning to the mystery of death. Confidently insert the Christian meaning of death. The proclamation of the first followers! Jesus has defeated death. He’s alive. He’s alive. The man you crucified is alive! Ever since we are not ‘like people who have no hope’. He is our only hope in the presence of the finality and silence of death.
A good faith and prayer life  at this time creates an opening for grace to touch grieving and confused souls. Some few do make a new start, for most it’s a one off episode. The time and (ageing) energy expended sows a seed that will bear fruit in due season!
Stan Mellett. C.Ss.R. (Assumption Parish. Ballyfermot)

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One Comment

  1. Mary Vallely says:

    That’s a beautiful reflection, Stan. Yes, the priest is in a privileged position indeed. I’ve attended two funerals this past fortnight, both of young people, and I have to say that no one does ritual like the Catholic Church. (British Royal family a close second!) You do feel the presence of God and the comfort and consolation in the mass. No gesture, however small, nor any reaching out of the hand of friendship, is EVER wasted. It can have a ripple effect. Whether the deceased or the family had ceased going to mass or not (and that doesn’t mean they had stopped believing in God, of course) the very presence of a priest and the faith community is Christ being present and people never forget an act of kindness, a smile, a handshake, the gift of being there for them. I know there is much despair among many priests these days but take heart in what you do. It is, as Stan said, a ‘privileged position.’ Bail ó Dhia ar an obair.

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