Clergy attend more funerals than anyone. Several Oregon priests explain what makes for a prayerful and meaningful ministry and liturgy at the time of death.
Father Bruce Cwiekowski, chaplain and director of pastoral care at Providence Portland Medical Center, says the key to a meaningful funeral is the element of faith.
"For families who regularly participate in Eucharist, it can really be a celebration of life, even with a lot of sadness," Father Cwiekowski says.
For those who are not as active in church, he explains, the paschal mystery is not as present during the funeral.
"We are here for a faith purpose and our task is somehow to make sense out of death, which does not make sense from a human perspective," says the priest, who celebrated many funerals as director of AIDS ministry in the Archdiocese of Portland. It's essential to meet with the family ahead of time to pick music and readings for the funeral, Father Cwiekowski says. That helps connect the liturgy to the person's life.
He remembers his own mother's funeral clearly, even though it was decades ago. The liturgy had an overall theme, which came from Psalm 89: "I will celebrate your love forever." His mother loved a hymn based on the psalm. As he vested before the Mass, he was not sure he could preside. But when he heard the church singing that song in such a spirited way, his fears evaporated and he felt spiritually full.
"That's what funerals can be for people," Father Cwiekowski says. "It can be this incredible act of faith. It's turning over our joys and our sorrows to God. Only God can turn our tears into joy."
Father Mark Bachmeier, pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Portland, says it's important that the parish respond promptly with offers of pastoral care for families. Bringing a casserole or a fruit basket is a practical help, and also allows the family to feel linked to the parish and more apt to seek out spiritual help there. On one of the visits, a staff member might bring a funeral planning book for family to look over. The staffer or the priest can present themselves to listen and console, then answer questions. "Having the church be there with an initial response means the world to people," Father Bachmeier says.
Some families will want a lot of support, while others prefer more privacy, the priest says. Pastoral staff need to be alert to preferences.
Father Bachmeier encourages families to hold a vigil the night before the funeral. In addition to the rich liturgy, the gatherings give family and friends time to get reacquainted and tell stories.
For the funeral itself, Father Bachmeier makes sure the entire parish knows the time and date and feels welcome to celebrate the paschal mystery and the life of their companion in faith. On the day of the funeral, he usually cancels the weekday Mass and invites those worshipers to attend the funeral instead.
It's helpful, Father Bachmeier says, if there is a meal after the funeral. A group of Holy Cross women have taken up the lunches as a ministry and their pastor is grateful.
Franciscan Father John dePaemelaere of Portland appreciates hearing family tell stories about the deceased before the funeral. That helps him celebrate the joy of God's wondrous works done through people, he says.
Father Don Gutmann, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Newberg, also finds it essential to meet with families to make the vigil and funeral more personal. Even if he is not asked to speak at the vigil, he likes to know the stories and appreciates it when families assemble a collection of photos to display in the vestibule.
Father Gutmann knows that funerals tend to have a lot of non-Catholics. In his welcome, he always says something to put them at ease. Often, he jokes a bit about how Catholics stand, sit and kneel at times hard to predict. He invites visitors to adopt any posture they want and not to be embarrassed. He wants everyone to focus on the mysteries of faith and the life of the person, not when to stand up. Father Gutmann often explains the liturgy briefly, inviting non-Catholics to come forward for a simple blessing at Communion time.
Pastoral flexibility can be helpful at a time of death, as a story from Holy Cross Father Richard Berg shows.
Father Berg, former pastor of St. André Bessette Parish in Portland, in 2009 received a call from a sad-sounding woman. Her brother John, homeless and alcoholic, had been murdered in Chicago. Police sent John's cremated remains home.
"Will you help us?” she simply said.
When the day came for the unusual memorial, Father Berg placed a small table in the downtown church's sanctuary for the remains. He added two symbols: a candle on the table and a potted plant on the floor nearby — light and life.
Before the service, the priest listened to the bereaved parents tell the story of their adopted son. The boy began drinking at 15, went through treatment over and over and then left Portland.
Father Berg leaned over and took John’s mother and father by the hands.
“Dear family, believe with me your son is now in God’s keeping," he said. "John is now free to be the man God created… no need for shame or secrecy in eternal life.” Then came the quiet, prayerful funeral Mass.
"I celebrate many funerals and each is unique and hopeful in its way," says Father Berg, who told the story in his book Fragments of Hope. "And curiously they help me remain convinced that we will retain our identity in the eternal life – which begins now."