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10/30/2012 10:31:00 AM
Confusion about church funeral practices common
Catholic News Service photo
Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley presides at final commendation for Sen. Edward Kennedy. The Mass caused people to inquire who is allowed to have Catholic funerals.
Catholic News Service photo
Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley presides at final commendation for Sen. Edward Kennedy. The Mass caused people to inquire who is allowed to have Catholic funerals.
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Confusion about the Catholic Church's funeral practices is common. This was evidenced three years ago by a wave of discussion over whether Sen. Edward Kennedy should have had a Catholic funeral because of his public disagreement with the church's teaching against abortion.

Many Catholics have in mind bygone standards, and are fuzzy on even those.

Father John Dietzen, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill. has for decades written a column fielding questions from the public about the church. He receives many queries about who can and cannot have a church funeral. Many of those questions are rooted in practices that have long since gone by the wayside, he said.

The most common funeral-related topic Father Dietzen hears about is suicide.
The commentary with the Code of Canon Law says that people in irregular marriages or people who committed suicide are not included among those who are automatically denied funerals, "since deprivation of a church funeral not infrequently causes as much if not more scandal than granting it."

The church also has changed its thinking about cremation, as Father Dietzen has explained over the years in his column.

"Cremation formerly was forbidden by the Catholic Church (and some other Christian denominations) because anti-Christian groups, especially in Europe, promoted it as a symbolic rejection of Christian belief in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection," he explained in one article. "That argument is no longer raised seriously. For decades now, the church has no longer prohibited the practice, provided it is not chosen in disrespect for Christian faith or beliefs."

The deaths of notorious mobsters have raised the question of whether they should have Catholic funerals. Convicted mobster John Gotti was refused a funeral Mass after his death at a federal prison hospital in 2002. Gotti had been sentenced in 1992 to life without parole on charges of racketeering, obstruction of justice, murder in the aid of racketeering, operating an illegal gambling business and witness-tampering.

The Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., permitted Gotti to be entombed in a family mausoleum in a Catholic cemetery and to hold a memorial Mass after the funeral.

"The bottom line is, it's up to the bishop" to decide cases where there is clear doubt about whether someone should be given a Catholic funeral, says Father Dietzen.

Other confusion often involves "things that were unthought of 50 years ago, like the fact that you can have a funeral Mass for a non-Catholic" under certain circumstances, the priest explains.

That might happen, for instance, for somebody who was in the process of becoming a Catholic at the time of death or for the religiously-unaffiliated spouse of a practicing Catholic.

"There is more recognition of the limitations of knowledge of what motivates people in their relationship with God," Father Dietzen said. "We recognize that we don't know. And we give every possible benefit of the doubt in saying this person is still a part of the church's prayers. We don't know what happened with that person's relationship with God and the church. It could be that something happened within the last few hours before death. And that's what counts."

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