Coping with the lack of a funeral Mass during COVID-19

A distressed reader writes to Ask Father

QUESTION:

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Catholic families are coping with the lack of a funeral Mass for a deceased loved one. I don’t think a future memorial Mass carries the same weight as a proper funeral Mass. What can I do? I not only feel the loss of my loved one, but the loss of the full rites of the church? — Heartbroken in Holyoke

Dear Heartbroken in Holyoke:

I am very sorry for the loss of your loved one. Bearing the weight of that loss is heavy enough, and it is understandable that you feel the added pain of not having the full rites of the Church at this time of grieving. This is just about the most anguishing aspect of the pandemic: the inability to be physically present to loved ones who are dying and then the legal prohibition against gathering together in any sizable numbers for a funeral Mass.

There are simply no easy words of consolation. Allow me for a moment to draw upon the wisdom of our biblical tradition. After the destruction of Jerusalem in the fifth century before Christ, a series of laments bewailing the fate of the holy city was gathered together to form one of the canonical books of the Old Testament, the Book of Lamentations.  Before any reasons are brought forward to try to explain how this terrible calamity had fallen upon them, the people are first given room to cry to the heavens for how great a loss they had suffered.

So before trying to answer your question, “what can I do?’, or maybe as part of an answer to your question, know that God is not deaf to your own cries to heaven. Time after time in the Bible, not only in the Book of Lamentations, but also in the Psalms and in Jesus’ public ministry, we see that a heartfelt outpouring of feeling, be it righteous anger or remorse or the pain of an anguished heart, is not only permitted, but given favor. It is at times of our own suffering that we may be able to see this more clearly. The God in whom we Christians believe is not One who remains at a safe distance from the pain and suffering of this life, but a God who, out of his immense love, comes to share our sorrow and pain. I believe nothing quite so strongly as this: God is close to the broken-hearted, to use the word you have chosen to name yourself. God mourns for your loss.

Now to address your questions more specifically. When you say that a future memorial Mass does not carry the same weight as a proper funeral Mass, let’s see if we can think this through together. Catholic funerals express our faith in Jesus’ resurrection and hope for our own resurrection. There are basically two purposes for a Catholic funeral: to pray for the salvation of the deceased person; and to help lead the person’s loved ones from grief to a deeper faith in the resurrection. As you struggle with your own grief, what you will miss in a funeral Mass is the presence of family and friends praying together with the assistance of the Church’s ritual in the days immediately following the death of your loved one. The comfort and consolation provided by a funeral Mass is obvious, and its absence is a great loss. How important it is at a moment like this to be supported by those we love and by the beauty of the Church’s liturgy.

Let me make two suggestions. Given what is possible under the present circumstances, how can the principal purposes of the funeral Mass – praying for the soul of your loved one and a deepening of your own faith in Christ’s victory over the power of death –  still be realized in a more private setting? The gathering of the immediate family surrounding the casket in the funeral home with appropriate prayers offered by the Church’s minister and the subsequent prayers offered at the graveside can assist in helping to see the reality of death within the light offered by our faith. The sharing of stories and reminiscences about your loved one can also be a source of consolation during these days of mourning. None of this takes the place of a funeral Mass, to be sure, but it can provide some balm to the isolation and loneliness that weigh heavily on you at this time.

A second observation regarding a future memorial Mass. I can understand how it may seem a less desirable substitute for a funeral Mass. Its distance from the time of your loved one’s passing may give it – I hesitate to use the term – an “anticlimactic” aspect. When it comes to comparing a funeral and a memorial Mass, I might encourage you to think in terms of difference rather than one being superior to the other. For one thing, every Mass, insofar as it makes present here and now the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, has the same efficacy, that is, it is everywhere and at all times a source of grace and divine blessing. This is true for a Mass celebrated in a prison cell or in the grandest cathedral. When you gather together at a later date to honor and pray for your loved one, the circumstances will be different, but you have reason to believe that the graces that God makes available through the memorial Mass will be a source of great good for you and for all who participate. The prayers of the assembly, through God’s gracious design, will also be good for the deceased.

Dear Heartbroken: I needn’t tell you that this is an extraordinarily stressful time, full of uncertainties and anxiety. For all the world, I wish you could have “a proper funeral Mass” for your loved one. So many of the rituals that give meaning to people’s lives at moments of transition: graduations, Confirmations, weddings, family reunions, etc., have been put on an indefinite hold. For being time-sensitive, funerals may be the most painful to forego. As we live through this pandemic together, let’s find ways to bear one other’s burdens as well as we can.

God bless you.

Fr. Gallagher, A.A.

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