This short section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Christian funerals makes a couple of important points. The first is that the funeral does not confer a sacrament on the deceased. The second is that at the funeral the church surrenders the deceased "into the Father's hands," commending him or her to the Father.
Sometimes it is said that a funeral is more for the sake of those left behind than for the deceased. In a sense, this is true. The deceased does not receive a sacrament and, if the funeral is a Mass, Catholics in attendance may receive the Eucharist. We share in Christ's passion, death and resurrection through our participation in this sacrament.
In another sense, however, it is not true. The funeral is not primarily a way to console the survivors. Those close to the deceased, of course, should be given consolation by the church. That is a pastoral ministry of utmost importance. And it is good if the funeral itself does console those who are grieving.
The primary purpose of the funeral, however, is to unite the death and resurrection of the deceased with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is to surrender the deceased into the Father's hands. And it is to celebrate our belief in the resurrection of the body.
Moreover, we believe that our prayers and the prayer of the Christian community for the deceased are effective. They not only help us who say those prayers, but also the deceased for whom they are offered. They are not simply a way of psyching ourselves up to get along without this person who was so important to us.
So, although the deceased has passed beyond the sacraments into everlasting life, we remain one with that person. Christ's Mystical Body extends through time, embracing heaven and earth and purgatory. It unites all the baptized on both sides of the heavenly veil in Christ.
This fact is in itself consoling. Death is an apparent separation, not a real one. The deceased is not beyond our reach. We can intercede on his or her behalf; he or she may intercede for us.
There is even a sort of pedagogy which comes from attending a funeral. The funeral can help us understand more vividly that this world is, in a sense, a world of shadows. This world is real, to be sure. But what is most real is the transcendent reality which lies beyond appearances.
The church's emphasis on the resurrection in its funeral liturgy grew markedly in the years following the Second Vatican Council. The priest's vestments and the pall over the coffin changed from black to white and the prayers in the liturgy were changed to focus more on the resurrection and less on the possibility of eternal damnation.
Until the reform of the funeral liturgy in 1969, Catholic funerals could fill one with fear of "everlasting death on the day of terror" -- a phrase used more than once in the liturgy.
The Offertory prayer in the previous funeral liturgy began, "O Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory, deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the pains of hell and from the bottomless pit; deliver them from the lion's mouth, that hell swallow them not up, that they not fall into darkness, but let the holy standard-bearer Michael bring them into that holy light which you promised of old to Abraham and to his seed."
This prayer, and others like it, painted one's options starkly. It may have fallen short in emphasizing the connection between the death of a Christian and the paschal mystery, although at some points in the liturgy it did draw that connection.
Now the liturgy is more emphatic in drawing the connection between Baptism and our final union with Christ after death. There is a blessing with holy water both at the beginning and the end of the funeral service.
Those blessings are a reminder of Paul's statement that "we have been buried with (Christ) by Baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4).
We need this reminder. And it is good if the funeral liturgy can help us to focus more on the eternal life which we are already living, but which will become more evident after we too pass beyond this life.
But the funeral is also for the deceased. We should never fail to believe that our prayers for the dead bear fruit in the eternal life for which we long.
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