On Funerals

This is a sort of meta-post about the purpose of funerals and their structure. Tune in next time for more concrete suggestions and printable music you can use!

Nothing brings out my Expert's Ire like watching the portrayal of Catholic funerals on TV - kind of like the way my husband spends all of every submarine movie muttering "it never looks like that" or "that would never happen." No one wants to talk about death anymore, and so the Catholic Church's teaching on Last Things is often left to one side until one must face it personally, leaving vast numbers of people without any knowledge of how the funeral liturgy works, or even what it is for. Add into that the grossly misrepresented "Christian Funeral" on almost every form of modern media, and you have a situation rife with highly uncomfortable encounters for the organist or cantor.

There are few trickier situations to navigate than a funeral liturgy. On the one hand, the raw feelings of the bereaved family must be carefully considered, and many who attend the funeral may not be Catholic, and therefore may not understand the (sometimes seemingly arbitrary) rules and guidelines for the Mass. On the other hand, the Truth is the Truth for all people, and the Catholic Church has a very specific message to speak by means of the funeral liturgy. The modern notion of a "celebration of life" has nothing at all to do with it - quite simply, we are there to offer the most powerful prayer on behalf of the deceased, to affirm our belief that death is not final, and to take solace in the message of God's infinite mercy. Anything else is distraction, and springs from unbelief - in purgatory (and therefore the necessity of praying for the dead), in the power of the Mass, in the resurrection of the dead (and therefore our cause for hope).

Since my focus is the Liturgical Musician, let's begin with words on music from the General Introduction from the Order of Christian Funerals:

"30. Music is integral to the funeral rites. It allows the community to express convictions and feelings that words alone may fail to convey. It has the power to console and uplift mourners and to strengthen the unity of the assembly in faith and love. The texts of the songs chosen for a particular celebration should express the Paschal Mystery of the Lord's suffering, Death, and triumph over death and should be related to the readings from Scripture." (emphasis mine)

Right off the bat, this rules out any and all secular music, however dear to the heart of the deceased or their family. Note that the entire funeral liturgy encompasses the vigil, the Mass, and the rite of committal, so even the procession from the church to the gravesite should be marked with liturgical solemnity and dignity, so no, you can't even play the Notre Dame Fight Song as they bring the casket out of the church (an actual request I once had the honour of turning down). Any such request must be gently but firmly declined. It can be less awkward to blame the pastor - oh no, the priest says sacred music only, I'm so sorry. Perhaps those treasured songs can be played at the reception, when everyone is better able to pay more attention?

It also rules out songs focused on our human action. Songs of discipleship, ministry, or community are very well in their place, but this is not that place. Facing death at only one remove, it is not the time to be called to take action. It is the time to rely wholly on the grace of God and the entirely sufficient redemptive action of His Only Son.

Now that the selection has been narrowed a little, let's take a look at the structure of the funeral Mass itself. It begins with the reception of the body at the entrance to the church, which means the priest and servers enter unaccompanied by song. Remembering that many people in attendance may not be familiar with church protocol, the inside of the church may grow noisy - keep an assortment of quiet, meditative music on hand to fill the background with beautiful noise, so as to discourage chit-chat. (Bear in mind that this is a hopeful, comforting occasion, and stay away from heavy, gloomy, minor-key German chorales.) Once the priest enters, stop playing. The Mass has begun. He will place a pall, or white covering, on the casket, as a reminder of Baptism, and sprinkle holy water. Once this is complete, the procession begins, and so also the opening hymn.

In the old Requiem, the opening words to be sung are "Rest eternal grant unto him O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him." This was followed immediately by the Kyrie, as the Mass is a continuation of the liturgy begun with the vigil, so there are no introductory rites (just like the Triduum). In the Ordinary Form, there is no Kyrie, just straight to the opening prayer. Continue with the opening hymn until any family members who have accompanied the remains are in their pews, then wrap it up. The themes of light, rest, laying down of burdens, and eternal life are all appropriate here. If using a hymn that only refers to these in later verses, skip ahead to them as necessary.

There are ten options for the Responsorial Psalm - the first and by far most popular is "the Lord is my Shepherd." The family is usually given the option of selecting one from among their number, but they don't always want to - many people prefer to leave it up to the priest, and the priest will almost invariably prefer to leave it up to you. Don't expect people to sing along, but still sing as though they will. They may surprise you, but for the most part, they won't. (Throughout the Mass, in fact, part of your job is to make sure all of the responses are spoken clearly and correctly. Many times, mourners are still too deep in their sorrow to remember what to do, even after a lifetime of attending Mass*.)

At the Offertory, the old rite placed in the mouth of the choir the words: 

"Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory, deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the pains of hell and from the bottomless pit: deliver them from the lion's mouth, that hell swallow them not up, that they fall not into darkness."

Since the Offertory is a time of introspection, a moving back and forth between two things - time to meditate on the Word of God and prepare interiorly for reception of the Eucharist - hymns based on supplicatory Psalms are especially good here. Try to select hymns that emphasize that this deliverance has, in fact, been accomplished.

Many families request a singing of one or another setting of Ave Maria at a funeral. This is good and fitting, given the second half of the prayer. The best place to put it is after the reception of Communion, not during. The Blessed Sacrament always deserves our total focus.

After the Prayer After Communion, your priest may, for pastoral reasons, allow a eulogy to be given. I strongly believe that this practice should be eliminated from Catholic funerals. Since you have no control over this aspect of the liturgy, I won't go on a rant, but only point out that the General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals says plainly, twice, that a eulogy should never be given. However, the practice is embedded in the American psyche, and funeral home directors are not aware that such a thing has no place in a Catholic funeral and have promised it to the family, etc. So there it is. Hopefully you will hear one that focuses on the good that God has done for the deceased in their life, that briefly calls the mourners to hope and comfort. I've seen some doozies in my day though, let me tell you...

At last it is time for the Final Commendation. The priest and servers leave the altar and approach the body. After a brief word, the priest will incense the remains to show respect for the body which was marked with the seal of the Holy Trinity at baptism, the temple of the Holy Spirit. There are many simple responsory psalms to sing here, I use this one - just sing it straight, a cappella, no amplification. I find the simplicity of the tone dignified enough to need no enhancement.

There is no dismissal at the end of the funeral Mass; instead there is an invitation to go and carry our brother/sister to her final resting place. Immediately begin the final hymn. Again, in the old rite, this would be "In Paradisum," and would be sung all through the procession, on foot, from the church to the grave site. Alas, my favourite setting is not public domain so I can't post it - it is the old chant, the organ accompaniment composed by Randall deBruyn, former Directing Editor for Oregon Catholic Press (all my favourite chant accompaniments are his). Other fitting hymns include "I Know That My Redeemer Lives," "The Strife is O'er," or similar redemption-focused words. Always keep the emphasis on the work of Christ, and you won't go wrong.

*This happened to me when I buried my son, even after my ten years of being the parish organist and playing for several funerals per year.


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