Walking the Fine Line at Funerals

The challenges posed by delay-timed funerals

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Father CarrionThe adage “I would rather have 10 funerals than one wedding” has been stated by many priests. Countless phone calls, emails and conversations among engaged couples and their families, the wedding coordinator, and so on, are exhausting. The wedding is months away and you long for the moment when that happy couple walks down the aisle toward the front door. You are relieved that they did not even invite you to the reception, as you are heading home to your La-Z-Boy to toast that “the Mass is ended” with a peaceful and wine-filled glass.

But lately the adage is shifting with the times and new traditions. The ratio of ten-to-one is about even now. All the crazy exhaustion with weddings is now manifesting with the funeral rite.

While cremation has been a welcome shift for the Church, it has brought in many of the exhausting practices of weddings. When the funeral director calls to announce a funeral is needed, it is refreshingly surprising to hear that the family of the deceased, who died yesterday, wishes the burial to be this week. While checking my own and the church’s availability, I am thinking, “Thank God, as the family will not have time to get out of control.” The family will be focused on what is important.

Other times, we are not so lucky. When Karen, the friend of the Morti family calls the office to announce that Joe Morti died and the family wishes to begin planning the funeral, and she, Karen, will be the point of contact, my thought is, “OMG, please, no,” bracing myself for a deluge of anxiety. It is similar to when the mother of the engaged couple, whose name you have never heard of, calls to make the initial appointment. The response to the mother is similar to my response to Karen’s: “Congratulations to your family. What are the engaged couple’s names and contact information so I can congratulate them directly?” My words to Karen: “I am so sorry to hear of Mr. Monti’s death. What is the name of his wife, and her contact number, so I may directly offer my sympathy?”

When the response, “We are not using one,” follows the question, “Which funeral director is being used?” you further brace yourself for countless calls, emails and texts, as the parish, undertaking all the details, just became the “undertaker” for Joe Morti’s funeral.

The time lapse between now and the funeral also indicates how much drama to absorb. Sadly, mourning families think that having the extra time to plan and having everything perfect are blessings that come with cremation. Rather, it has become a curse to the family, and they do not even realize it. The exhausting five days of yesteryear’s practice, between the day of the death and burial, has now been lengthened to unlimited days. The busyness of the funeral details, while spread over time, also creates more busy times. The length of time delays the mourning. The short five days of details in traditional funerals often lessen the unnecessary details. When the five days are over and the deceased is buried, the family can plop in their recliners and mourn with a glass of wine. Mourning does not happen well when the five days become five weeks or more.

The five weeks create much drama. The drama, due to the delay, falls into the parish staff’s laps, too. Recently, I’ve noticed, when families delay the funeral, the emails and phone calls are numbered into the 20s. Too many families and friends “speaking” for the grieving widow get involved, those on the left hand are not talking to those on the right. Staff receives phone calls from different family members, all of whom see themselves as the point of contact. Not only has the parish become the undertaker, the parish becomes the caterer when the family asks: “What color tablecloths do you have or how many tables/chairs will be set up? And, can someone be there to put out the food trays when the deli arrives? We will be at the funeral.” The parish also becomes the funeral parlor as the family wants to avoid receiving friends the night before and only receive friends before the Mass.

Since this hour-long funeral has now become an hour of visitation, an hour of liturgy and several hours of reception, these requests and new practices encourage the staff to restructure the funeral fee.

While it is important for the parish to serve the family’s needs, we are not to be enslaved by the family’s needs. It is difficult walking the fine line.

FATHER PATRICK M. CARRION is the pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Ijamsville, Maryland, and the director of Cemetery Management for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

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