Our Anonymous Dead

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By Matt Janeczko, OFM Cap.

My first two months of priesthood have been filled with unexpected joys and challenges: as I said to a confrere yesterday, “Priesthood is exactly what I expected and nothing like what I expected.”

One of the most challenging – and at the same time rewarding – aspects of my ministry has been celebrating funerals.  Death, I’ve concluded, is exactly what Paul of Tarsus said it to be: the last enemy to be destroyed.  Yet, aside from the fundamental theological issues resulting from death (why? why now? punishment? salvation? God’s plan [oh, no, no, no!]), there is a deeper challenge with which I am regularly confronted:

The Anonymous Funeral.

Certainly, I don’t mean anonymous in terms of name or biographical details.   I’m always in possession of these before a Mass of Christian Burial.

The real problem is that I rarely know the person; or the family – even in a cursory sense.  The reasons for this are as different as the deceased: they’ve moved away, they belong to another parish, they haven’t been in a church since their wedding day or since a priest scolded them or a loved one.  (The reasons are endless – and quite frankly, immaterial.)

This creates a perfect liturgical storm of sorts: (1) the funeral prayers of the Third Roman Missal appear primarily concerned with asking God to forgive the deceased his or her sins and grant one admission to heaven; (2) our people have largely been fed the saccharine (and damaging) thought by society (and clergy too) that it was their loved one’s time to be called by God, that God needed another angel, or some other such insult to the Almighty and the to the deceased; and (3) a funeral homily, or more broadly liturgy, is not an opportune time to explain and/or undo the damage of points one and two.

And so, what is there to do? I’m still trying to figure it out.  But thus far I’ve arrived at three general principles for the funeral liturgy itself:

  1. Don’t lie.  If you don’t know the person was a good mother or father, don’t say so.  Rely on what the family has said; pay specific attention to what the family has not said.  Not attempting to pretend we knew the deceased goes a long way.  By relying on the family’s remembrances, one can weave together relevant details of the person’s life with the readings of the funeral (along with the general shape of the liturgy itself).
  2. Preach the kerygmaEveryone at the funeral can see the casket in front of the church; they can also, without much effort, see the Crucifix.  If we really believe that by his life, death, and resurrection from the dead, Christ broke the power of sin and death over us, we ought to say so.  What’s more, if we really believe that those who were baptized died with Christ at that point and, by coming out of the waters, were raised with him into a new existence, we can preach that, too.  We don’t need to canonize the deceased; we don’t need to promise that he or she is in heaven.  What we can and should do, however, is proclaim the mystery of faith:  that all who have died in Christ will one day live in Christ.
  3. Embrace the liturgy.  Plenty of ink has been spilled on the Third Roman Missal regarding alleged positives and negatives.  However, the mass is a lot more than simply its words: it’s the bountiful symbolism (especially in a funeral liturgy); it’s the care given by the presider and other liturgical ministers in praying; it’s (quite bluntly) whether the priest conveys the impression that he’s praying as hard and celebrating these Rites as reverently as he would for his own mother or father.

Perhaps the neatest way to sum this up is to point out a reality I didn’t quite understand until after my first anonymous funeral: I may have not known the deceased, I may not have known their family and friends, but I knew enough.  In fact, I always have the grace of one bit of knowledge: the deceased is my sister or brother in Christ – and that means they’re not anonymous after all.

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