Just like baptisms and marriages, so at death: The rites of a community serve several purposes. They convey a great deal about how death is understood in the group, and about what relationship there is between the living and dead. They may also convey the meaning of this individual’s life. The rites will handle the time of transition from life with this person present in the community to life with this person absent. This recognizes that death ordinarily brings a group-family, neighborhood, church-into a different way of being. Changes like this are always difficult. They may challenge the existence of the group itself, or at the least call people to new roles and new understandings.Rites, however, are not and cannot be rational attempts to do all these things. They are the ways people do these things for themselves, and they work at levels far deeper than the rational.
The rites that surround death manifest very clearly a problem in our culture. The usual practices of mortuaries and cemeteries carry certain messages about the meaning of death, about this individual, about how grief is handled. Seldom do these have any relation to the convictions expressed in the rituals of the church. However Holy Family is a parish that is concerned with the ways that the church’s ritual can be a strong and worthy expression of our faith study the rites and the many options available in the Order of Christian Funerals. Not only does Holy Family provide a minister to help the family through the process, we also have a ministry post funeral in the grieving process. Each November we invite the families to remember their beloved dead at a special Eucharistic celebration on or near All Souls day. Throughout the month of November we display The Book of the Dead, which names our loved ones who passed into eternal life this past year.
In particular, the parish ministers to the dying and to mourners. The church’s prayer with the dying is not “extreme unction,” which is now understood and practiced as the anointing of the sick, but viaticum, final communion. There are many beautiful prayers in our tradition that praise God for the love that God has shown to this person in life, and express deep confidence in the communion of saints, the community that transcends death. These prayers continue through the hour of death and may end with the blessing of the body. In some cases, a priest or deacon is present, but we should know these as the prayers of family and friends.
The wake service is a combination of structured and unstructured moments. The ritual should be in continuity with the less formal moments of gathering and greeting, sharing stories and memories, offering sympathy. The wake is often more intimate than the funeral, and it is more clearly centered on the one who has died. The wake can be a good beginning for the long process of coming to terms with life now that this person is gone. The community shows its support in the wake, the support that will be there in the weeks and months to come.
The funeral liturgy, which usually includes the celebration of the eucharist, allows for scripture readings and liturgical music and various other elements to be chosen by the family or other mourners. In this liturgy and in the rites that take place at the side of the grave, the church holds parting and communion in tension: There is the final commendation of the deceased to the Lord, and the reality of the grave itself, as we console ourselves in faith in our communion with the saints and our waiting for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. The rites take these things and give them powerful expression in song, word and gesture.