At the hour of our death

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Article Seniors Spirituality

Even death cannot rob us of our fundamental dignity as human persons. -From the U.S. bishops' Reflections on the Body, Cremation, and Catholic Funeral Rites

Burying the dead is a corporal work of mercy because Christians care for the bodies of humans-even though they are deceased. "The dead deserve as respectful a burial as can be provided, this is a minimum," says Father Richard Rutherford of the University of Portland.

Rutherford was a member of a task force appointed in 1989 by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to address some of the liturgical issues surrounding the growing popularity of cremation. Last summer, the group's work was published in a brochure by the bishops' Committee on Liturgy. It followed the ruling in March from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship allowing cremated remains to be present in U.S. churches during funerals. The bishops' committee, which had expected the decision from Rome, was ready with its document to make sure that burials continued to be carried out with proper respect for the body. The occasion also gave the bishops an opportunity to share the Catholic theology of death and why burying the dead is a work of mercy.

"All creation is holy, because it was brought into being at God's command. But humankind is especially cherished, since the human person, individually and in community, reflects the divine reality and is destined for eternal life," according to the U.S. bishops' Reflections on the Body, Cremation, and Catholic Funeral Rites.

Christian funeral rituals, Rutherford says, "are the very heritage of the human community." The history of Christian burials dates back to the rituals observed by Greeks, Romans, and, primarily, Jews.

After the Babylonian exile, "rabbis taught that the obligation to care for the dead extended not only to relatives and friends but to any deceased Jew. They repeatedly insisted that this duty of fraternal love likewise included the dead outside Judaism," Rutherford writes in his book, The Death of a Christian: The Order of Catholic Funerals (Liturgical Press, 1991).

In their brochure, the bishops describe Christ's death as the prototype for all human death. "There is a fundamental analogy between the offering of the cross and that of those who 'fall asleep' in Christ," they say. "Viewed with the eye of faith, death is not so much a finality to be feared as the gateway to the fullness of life in the presence of the Holy One."

Although cremation is allowed by the church, the bishops stressed that burial or entombment of the body is still preferred. In cases where families choose cremation, the bishops want the body to be present in the church for the funeral rituals. Cremated remains should be treated with the same respect as corporeal remains and properly disposed ofentombed in a mausoleum or columbarium or buried in a cemetery.

Since Catholics believe in the dignity of the human person and the resurrection of the body, caring for the body "grows out of a reverence and concern for the person whom the church now commends to the care of God," according to the bishops.

"The body that lies in death recalls the personal story of faith, the past relationships, and the continued spiritual presence of the deceased person," the bishops say.

"This is the body once washed in Baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life. This is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing."

Final moments

Deacon Albert Mindel of Miami says most people of Western culture do not handle death very well.

"In our profession of faith, we believe in the body of Christ and life everlasting." But, he says, when you are facing the last moments of your life, it's grace you depend on.

As a minister with the archdiocesan-sponsored Catholic Hospice, Inc., Mindel has experienced that same grace while sitting beside the beds of many individuals approaching death. "For the most part, it's a reconciliation of tying together the loose moments that have occurred in life," he says.

The 59-year-old deacon has spent the last eight years with Hospice, whose mission is to help manage the physical, emotional, and spiritual pain of dying.

"So many patients find themselves with fewer and fewer visitors or people who don't know what to say," says Mindel. "I've walked the journey with a lot of people, and every moment in the last moments of a human life is a grace-filled moment if your eyes are open to it.

"Until this point in our lives, we have a tendency to put our best foot forward. When we go outside, we are dressed and prepared for the world. When somebody gets to the end of life there is no facade."

Mindel says one of the most gracefilled deaths he shared was that of an elderly Jewish man from New York. "He thought he was on the road to recovery, but the opposite was true." The man was diagnosed with stomach cancer shortly after he retired to Florida. Mindel met him in a nursing home where he was placed after his elderly wife could no longer care for him. Mindel went to see the man every Monday and Friday for nine months.

"In the beginning, he felt that life had dealt him an unfair blow," says Mindel. "But over the months he came to a clear understanding and a resolution."

Sometimes, the deacon prayed at the man's bedside while other times he just listened to the man talk. By the day of his death, the man could no longer speak. But he communicated with his eyes. "I asked him if he was afraid and he assured me he was not," recalls Mindel. "In the quiet and peace he died.

"To me, that's God working within his creation. It's an awesome experience to be allowed into somebody's life at that time-this affirms and confirms my faith."

Ministering to people as they journey through the process of dying helps Mindel cope with issues in his own life, including a battle with bladder cancer. "This ministry has taught me that I am really not in control," he says. "And it has made me a great deal more accepting of God's working in my own life."

Signs of hope

According to Rutherford, Catholic cemeteries also have a responsibility to bury the dead-rich or poor. And after a funeral, Catholic cemetery personnel also have an obligation "to walk with the bereaved on the long, painful process of healing." It's a mission that Catholic cemeteries accept with enthusiasm, according to Ellen Woodbury, past president of National Catholic Cemetery Conference. Cemeteries, Woodbury says, were among the first organizations to develop support programs for grieving families.

Woodbury's Rockville Centre, New York diocese sends a Mass card inviting families to the cemetery on the day their loved one is to be interred. And another personal note is usually sent a year later inviting them to return for an anniversary Mass. Retired diocesan priests often volunteer to deliver special homilies and provide comfort to mourners. Families of the deceased also are invited to attend gatherings at the cemetery on holy days and holidays.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society in the Diocese of Brooklyn for more than 40 years has been running a program that provides free Christian burials to poor Catholics, those without any family, and to stillborn and newborn infants whose parents cannot afford the cost of a funeral. Many of those buried through this program not only have no one to bury them but also no one to pray for them. The society arranges for a priest to perform the funeral liturgy and its members continue to pray for all those who were buried through the program.

Care of the dead bridges corporal and spiritual works "because burial implies remembering the dead in the Christian way, such as tending to the grave site as a sign of hope in the promised resurrection and offering prayers for the dead. For Catholics, the celebration of the funeral and prayers for the dead are for both the bereaved and the dead," Rutherford says.

According to Woodbury, who has spent the past 28 years ministering to bereaved families, Catholic cemetery workers are living examples of the mercy of the church toward the dead and their survivors. "I believe that the burial of the dead and the reverence for their eternal remains is an integral part of my faith.

"In choosing this ministry as my career, I am following my religious belief in assisting those who need comfort, establishing trust funds for future care and maintenance, and providing, on a daily basis, for the reverent maintenance of the burial places of those who predeceased me, as part of my faith."

Custom-made funerals

In 1977, consumer advocate Father Henry Wasielewski received a complaint about a parishioner who was begging for money to bury her late husband. When he called the funeral director, he was told the $995 price tag was based on the type of coffin the woman chose. He later learned it was the cheapest casket she could buy. When approached by the priest, the funeral director offered to cut the price in half.

"He didn't need to cut the price in half if it was legitimate to begin with," says Wasielewski. That experience launched his 20-year campaign to educate consumers about funeral expenses.

"For years, I was sending people to the wrong mortuary because I didn't understand," he says. "Just because a funeral director pays for the parish calendar does not mean the prices at that mortuary are the best. I had one of those calendars in my house growing up."

Today Wasielewski, 67, is retired from the Diocese of Phoenix and working full time as a consumer advocate. His first task was to survey all of the funeral homes in his diocese. Through newspaper ads and radio and television appearances, he challenges other pastors to conduct similar polls. In 1982, he helped establish the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee with a consumer hotline. The committee has a Web page (www.xroads.com/-funerals/ ) with lists of prices, pictures of caskets, and a page of funeral resources.

"The most important thing is to know what a reasonable price is," says Wasielewski. "Nobody buys a $10 tomato, because they know better." He estimates that "a complete, traditional funeral with a metal casket available in several different colors" should cost from $1,800 to $2,200. In most communities, you should be able to find cremations from $350 to $550."

He also suggests consumers find a mortuary with reasonable prices "no matter where it's located-even if it's 50 miles away." Wasielewski views his ministry as a work of mercy because grieving family members who are worrying about excessive funeral costs "don't have much chance to experience God."

Funerals "ought to be like my dad's. There wasn't any worry about being bulldogged." Wasielewski knew the funeral director, knew what prices to pay, and knew how he wanted to remember his father, Henry Senior, who died in 1981.

The first thing he did was ask the funeral director to leave once the body was delivered to the church. "You are the funeral director-this guy is not. You own it and everything about it is you. You can put flowers inside the casket and you can even paint it if you want."

When friends arrived for the funeral, Wasielewski invited them to a party on the patio of the parish hall. "We gave them rolls of crepe paper-gold and silverand gold and silver balloons and masking tape. We told them to decorate however they wanted. We were celebrating because we believe he is still with us.

The communion of saints means there is a union between the dead and the living. We just figured our dad was laughing and jumping up and down."

In the church, he moved the casket to just inside the front door. "I always have trouble when we're celebrating the Mass of the Resurrection and we've got this dead body as the centerpiece," he says. "We feel like we really did what was in our hearts because we were not distracted with somebody badgering us. We decided that we wanted a funeral that would comfort the family. My dad would have wanted us to celebrate, too."

This article appered in the February 2006 issue of U.S. Catholic.