The Tablet Blog
Why I'd allow my loved ones a lay-led funeralDiana Klein
15 September 2012, 9:00
Liverpool is the first diocese in England and Wales formally to commission lay people to conduct funeral services. In this week's Tablet, Archbishop Patrick Kelly has written an article 'In lay hands' to explain why he found it necessary to introduce such a change.
Kelly writes that the Council of Priests took the decision to introduce the idea of lay-led funerals because there are insufficient priests to preside at the number of funerals taking place. But this is not a new idea. The Order of Christian Funerals (OCF), which was published 22 years ago in 1990, envisages that a lay person may lead parts of the funeral rites.
I first heard of lay-led funerals when I was visiting Africa, where lay leaders of small Christian communities and catechists have been leading funerals for some time. This is partly because of the scarcity of priests and the large numbers of funerals; partly because of the distances that are covered in parishes and the difficulties a priest might have of travelling to a funeral; and partly because funerals take place very soon after death, so it may be impossible for a priest to get to the funeral in time. I am told that, in some places, it is actually unusual for a priest to lead a funeral; his role is reserved to celebrating a Mass for the deceased shortly after the funeral (as the OCF commends).
But, the scarcity of priests is not the only reason to introduce lay-led funerals. In England today more and more of the family and friends of the deceased one are not Catholic - or are not practising Catholics - and a funeral Mass is not necessarily the most appropriate way for the Catholic community to support the bereaved. Christian funerals offer people an opportunity to thank God for the deceased's life, to express the hope that they are now with God in heaven. It is good that people turn to the Church when a loved one has died and it is important that, during the brief encounter we have with them at this time, the Church is seen to meet them where they are.
The introduction of lay-led funerals might be a way of bringing the Church to the bereaved and I wonder if this will become a way for lay people to exercise their role to bring the world into contact with the Church. It will, of course, depend on the lay person, the training they are given and the time they are willing to spend with the family and friends of the deceased as they accompany them through their grief.
We must remember that 'the Church' is not the hierarchy of ordained ministers; the Church includes all the baptised - some with ecclesial ministries and some with ministries 'in the world'.
I hope this initiative will not be seen as the Church not caring; I hope it will be seen as exactly the opposite - and that people will begin to understand how the laity can play a very powerful role in reaching out to the bereaved in this way.
I would be willing to have a lay-led funeral for one of my loved ones. Would you?
Diana Klein is The Tablet's Parish Practice editor
2 October 2012 22:26 (11 of 11)
Reference Mr McCarthy's observations, he should know that a number of the 100 deacons are now retired; I myself have led committals following requiem mass and whole services at crematoria when invited to do so, but have to balance carefully with my part-time work commitments and family commitments - as do, I am sure, a number of my brother deacons, a number of whom even work full-time.
15 September 2012 12:29 (10 of 11)
Christ has saved the one who has died. He or she will stand before the merciful judge to whom a thousand years are no more than a watch in the night. The earthly timing of a Mass for the Dead is of lesser importance seen against eternity. A timely funeral conducted by a sensitive minister of whatever station in life is indeed largely for those who mourn, the beginning of their comforting.
veronica mary short
14 September 2012 18:25 (9 of 11)
What about about the person who has died -our brother or sister?
10 September 2012 20:05 (8 of 11)
This is more connected with the issue of bereavement and raises issue with the way clergy deal with it. In the wee small hours of this morning, my dad passed away, having just reached his 94th birthday. As I wanted to pray for him, I went to a church near the city centre where there is a regular lunchtime mass. When I spoke to the priest at the door, I told him my dad had just died that morning. His response was, 'Was he from this parish?'¯ There was absolutely no attempt to express any courtesy, or sorrow at my loss; in fact, he could not have shown any less interest. The sad thing is that this is the level of pastoral care and support I have long come to expect from the clergy in my own denomination. I had a similar incident earlier this year, when I told another RC priest (from a different parish) that my mother had died. Again, there was absolutely no expression of either interest, or sorrow. There was no evidence of anything like the pastoral support they claim to show. My principal question is: in all their theological studies and scripture reading, how much time is set aside to study the rudiments of common courtesy? Are they taught words like: please; thank you; excuse me; I'm sorry for your loss? And when I think that these are the representatives of an organisation that claims to value the dignity of human life '“ all I see is rank hypocrisy. No wonder they have a credibility problem with the laity both inside and outside their own organisation.
8 September 2012 19:09 (7 of 11)
I was asked by the family to conduct the funerals of my father- and mother-in-law, neither of whom had been a church-goer in the thirty or so years I had known them, yet they had joined us at Mass for Baptisms, First Communions and Christmas. My brief was to provide a Christian service in each case. This meant careful choice of Scripture, prayers and hymns to reflect both the earthly lives of those we were grateful to have known and loved, and the resurrection we, like they, looked forward to. These services were planned with the family, emails going to and fro to get everything right. However the prayers in the chapel and at the graveside were adapted from the Catholic Funeral Service, and these leave no room to avoid either the fact that each person present must die, nor that we look to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Funerals are missionary moments, not to seek converts, but to proclaim the Good News, in what feels like out of season, to people who have little contact with any church. I have attended too many where a priest has been unable to do this in more than a perfunctory way. A competent lay minister is able fittingly to prepare and lead a funeral, and I see no reason why this should not happen within and after a Requiem Mass, as well as in its absence. A Requiem Mass is for most Catholics an occasion to hear the Good News about Sister Death in her presence, as well as to bring ourselves and our deceased brother or sister to the Lord's table. But a Mass at a later time is the same Mass, the same Mass as in the Upper Room and on Calvary, the same Mass, as John Paul II reminds us, wherever or whenever celebrated on the altar of the world. How can the deceased lose any measure of supernatural grace if the Mass marking their passing occurs at another time? On the other hand, the living may be graced by a lay ministered funeral that acknowledges how God's love was manifest in the life of their dear one.
Fr Frank Maguire
8 September 2012 4:43 (6 of 11)
How sad, pathetically sad. And what muddled thinking Diana Klein, and mis-reading of the OCF - and indeed of the purpose of a Catholic funeral. '...a funeral Mass is not necessarily the most appropriate way for the Catholic community to support the breaved...' And '...the Church is seen to meet (the unchurched bereaved) where they are.' A whole avalanche of rebuttal can be summed up this simply: what about the dead person! Funerals these days, to the consternation of (many) priests, are all about the bereaved - funerals are for the bereaved. True, partly: principally Catholic requiem funerals are for the worshipping community to mark the passing of the community member from this life into eternal life with the full force of the Sacramental Church; and to remind ourselves, as John Donne so well encapsultes it: 'ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.' We have bought into this eulogy concept as a disguise for the non-practising Cathoilc having abandoned any concept of eternal life - or even consequences. The Catholic Reqium funeral is a time to gently remind the fallen away that indeed the bell tolls for them; that they are deaf does not mean we do not ring the bell. Sadly, priests themselves have often bought into this denial of Catholic reality; it amazes me how often a priest looks blankly at me when you mention the Apostolic Indugence for the dying e.g.: Viaticum? what's that? Our living can harmlessly survive an occassional Sunday Liturgy of the Word; our dead deserve every effort from the diminishing priestly numbers at this once-in-a-lifetime occassion - and so do the un-churched and lapsed. Ezekiel 2: 8-3:11, 16-21 has hard things to say on flattering the waywrd by (today's) bishops and priests. And a clarification: you cannot have a Requiem Mass without a body - the best you can offer (later) is a Mass for the Dead - not the same thing. 'We must remember...' Diana, that Christ's Church is a Sacramental Church, not a Church of the Word: no Sacraments and, yes, everyone is a jack - of piety.
8 September 2012 3:34 (5 of 11)
A few observations: with the increase of secularization and the denial of eternal life, fewer people are turning to the church for funeral rites. Instead, after cremation, many people simply have 'celebration of life' ceremonies and their ashes are scattered over a body of water or from a mountain top. Talk about denial of the resurrection of the body! After many years in the ministry I have gotten to the point where I wish people would simply be honest. if they had no time for the Lord and His Church during their life time, why come to the church to be buried? It strikes me as hypocritical....not to mention all of the nonsense to which unchurched people subject a priest. Lay led funeral services while necessary in mission territories should never be seen as the ideal in dioceses where the ordained are readily available. The author of this article fundamentally dismisses the necessity of Orders to the spiritual well being of the church.
7 September 2012 21:55 (4 of 11)
THIS is the nub of the issue: 'It's a bit of a slap in the face for the priests, to suggest that a layperson with the help of a one or two-weekend course can replace them in this most vital part of their ministry to their flocks.' There is nothing worse than coming face to face with the possibility that what you were taught to believe might not be true today, or maybe never was. I have been to way too many funerals where the priest didn't know a thing about the deceased and simply fell back on set statements of broad generality. I'd much rather have a lay person who knew me say something at my funeral. As far as the Eucharist, that, too is the unspoken fear of the ordained! It's a present-day version of the old game of 'If you are with a group of people on a desert island and there is not priest around, doest that mean that there can be no mass and (by extension) no Eucharist?'
7 September 2012 15:05 (3 of 11)
I agree entirely with an earlier post. In my diocese lay people have been told for thirty years of the 'crisis' caused by falling vocations. We now have more priests than we had in 1980. If the real reason for these changes is to drive through notions of lay involvement then the Church should say so, or if priests and Deacons find their tasks too onerous then perhaps they should reconsider the vocation they have chosen. I am a terrible sinner and desperately need the benefits of a funeral Mass, not some well meaning, but non sacramental lay service. Of all things to be led by lay people I think a funeral the least appropriate.
6 September 2012 10:37 (2 of 11)
Thank goodness at least one bishop is not burying his head in the sand regarding the shortage of priests and all that this implies. About 15 years ago I was conducting the funeral of a family friend. A French lady in the congregation told me afterwards that she watched me carefully as she conducted the funerals in her parish in France. She told me she liked what I did and said. What she particularly liked was the fact that I smiled !
6 September 2012 9:53 (1 of 11)
No, I wouldn't want a lay-led funeral for my family or myself. I believe in the power of the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass to help purify souls on the way to heaven. I will need a lot of this purification, and I will be grateful for many Masses offered for my soul. While I have no objection to lay parishioners reciting the Rosary around the deceased person's coffin the night before the funeral, or even taking the crematorium service after the church service, I strongly object to their leading a service in Church. Liverpool has nearly 100 deacons ordained as well as 150 priests. Why can't one of them be found? The diocese is only 40 miles from end to end. Don't priests spend 6 or 7 years in seminary training? And funerals are one of the most sensitive services they provide. It's a bit of a slap in the face for the priests, to suggest that a layperson with the help of a one or two-weekend course can replace them in this most vital part of their ministry to their flocks. No wonder Liverpool is so bereft of vocations to the priesthood.
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