Funeral etiquette

The beautiful matriarch of a wonderful family I knew growing up passed last week. She had been struggling with cancer and, as a woman of faith, was ready to go. The services were held in the Catholic church in Brentwood where she had been a member all of her adult life. Her five grown children and two pews full of grandchildren testified to the great love she shared here on earth, even through horrific tragedy which seemed to shadow her throughout her life. I wore a black dress and closed toe shoes. Having been to any number of memorial services over the past decade, I’ve noticed that this is a dying tradition. People wear all sorts of bright colors, beachy prints, sandalled feet; and of course, no one even uses the term funeral anymore. We call them Memorials or Celebrations of Life. From a theological perspective the transition to heaven is, of course, a joyful occasion, but I still think there is something to be said for the days of sackcloth and ashes and looking Death in the eye. In black.

There were a good 500 people there on a Monday morning. The songleader asked us to open the hymnals and join her in the singing of Amazing Grace. I did. But as I sang—-which I do not do well (see post “Did I mention I can’t sing at all?”)—-I sensed a lack of fullness in the sanctuary. Looking up and around and across the wings of pews I was hard pressed to find a half dozen people who had even made the gesture to take the hymnal out, let alone sing along. Now I understand that people have different beliefs and I don’t think that anyone should be forced to sing something that’s against their conscience. But to not even open the book and hum, that just felt to me like bad manners. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s something else. But when you come to a church to honor a woman who loved Jesus and Mary and all the Saints and Angels, and are asked to sing a song that is so much a part of our culture as to almost qualify as a pop ballad, why would you just stand there and stare blankly? Maybe they didn’t know what a hymnal was, or didn’t want to look foolish searching through it for the right page. I get that. But I suspect this non-participation may be part of a larger cultural issue: a lack of recognition that we each have a small part to play in the whole. That without each one of our voices we cannot hope to reach the fullness God intended, not in our lives, not in the ears of the mourners that day who longed for a choir of angels to comfort them.

OK, so this was not a particularly religious group I’m thinking as everyone was seated, bringing the altar into full view. It was then I realized that there was bread and wine and plans for Holy Communion. This raised a whole other set of issues, ones that transcended etiquette and moved straight into the heart of theology. The Catholic Church does not believe in communing anyone but baptized and confirmed Catholics. I knew this because I regularly visit a Benedictine monastery where they remind us each Mass that “open communion continues to be their fervent prayer for the future.” Those of us who are some other kind of Christian are invited to come up for a blessing. I always do. Suddenly I found myself torn. If this group of mourners was so unaccustomed or resistant to the ways of the church that they couldn’t even open a hymnal, what on earth would they make of Communion. I started to worry that few would come up and that the fullness that one would want as a celebration of a life in Christ would not be there as a gift to the family. I considered my own plans. Would it be better for me to take communion, to set an example, to witness to Christ in this setting? To do so would not only violate the rules of the Catholic church—-which I could not claim in my heart not to know—-as well as the rules of my own church. Although we offer communion to all baptized Christians who seek the forgiveness that the Eucharist offers, there is a major difference in the interpretation of what the bread and the wine mean. And what it means to be part of a church Body. This is not a difference I have a lot of personal issues with but, as the president of my congregation, I’m always cognizant of how my actions might be interpreted or impact others.

These were the thoughts that preoccupied me as the scriptures were read and the Irish priest gave a homily and then slowly, methodically, began to prepare the table. The time for deliberation was over. I decided I would go up for a blessing, nothing more. This I knew I would not end up regretting. The other I wasn’t so sure about. The Father broke the bread and lifted it heavenward. I whispered to my mom and my sister, instructing them about what to do, how to cross their arms to indicate that they wanted a blessing.

The priest then did something I’ve never seen before in my life. He looked out over the packed church and said, somewhat flustered, as if there had been a heart attack at sea, “Do we have a Eucharistic Minister in the house?”

I am not sure how it was that he was just then realizing he could not commune all these people on his own; evidently they were understaffed, unprepared—who knows. I froze. I’m a Eucharistic Minister in my own church, but I was certain he didn’t mean me. He meant someone Catholic. He must mean someone Catholic I said to myself, to God, to whom I’m always tuning into for cues. Could it be that my internal conflict would be resolved in such a startling way? Suddenly, one pew over, a beautiful, elegant, bare-armed woman raised her hand. She had olive skin and my mind went instantly to thoughts of Hispanic, Italian, Portuguese—-all nationalities that tended to the Catholic. Oh good, I thought, relieved, but also maybe just a tiny bit disappointed that the moment had passed and the opening had not been for me.

She took the side that we were on, the dark-skinned woman with the sculpted brown arms. I bowed my head as I approached. She noticed my hands crossed over my chest, set the wafer back in the dish, placed her hand on my shoulder. Wished me every good thing in the name of Jesus Christ. The family smiled as I walked back to my seat. The line for communion went all the way out to the end of the aisle. Now I was really confused. The priest had said very specifically that the Eucharist was only for Catholics, that others could come for a blessing but who else would come up for a blessing but someone with some form of faith life? And if they had that, why couldn’t they sing? I watched as person after person took the bread and the wine, but what it meant to them, I couldn’t say. Did the act feel somehow less religious than letting the words “I once was lost, but now I’m found” pass over their lips?

I know there is a lot of confusion about Communion these days. A friend who teaches at a parochial preschool and has been sober for over a decade was with us at my church when my daughter Remy was confirmed. When the tray of wine cups was offered, I noticed that she shook it off. Later I let her know, in case she ever came back, that we had both wine and grape juice. “That’s what the white juice is,” I told her gently. “Oh, she said, “I thought we had a choice now, you know, chardonnay or cab.” She then told me she had taken the bread and just skipped the wine, a whole other form of missing the point.

The songleader closed the memorial service with one of my favorite hymns: Be Thou my Vision. The handful of us who endeavored to sing it did what we could to fill the space. There was a wonderful video presentation—so many photos, so many memories—and then we were off, back to our days, our lives. I didn’t plan to attend the reception. I had my Ethics class to get to, homework to do, chinchilla food to buy on the way home.

I saw her in the parking lot, the beautiful woman who had so graciously offered to serve. “Thank you for helping out,” I said, placing my hand on her shoulder. “That was sort of strange how it came about, wasn’t it?”

“I know, right,” she said. “I would have thought they’d have a team here.”

“I know. I’m a Eucharistic Minister at my own church, but I’m not Catholic.”

“Me neither. Presbyterian.”

“And you went up there?” I said smiling in disbelief, wondering if it was courage or a less exacting nature that had led her to do what I could not.

“Well, he needed someone to do it,” she said as we shared a wide-eyed laugh. “He would have shit if he knew I wasn’t Catholic.”

“Yes he would have,” I smiled, brows raised.

So there you have it. No one knows quite what to do at a funeral anymore, not even those of us who give our lives to the church. So we search our hearts and make our choices and, in the end, trust that God is looking down on us and smiling.

3 Comments on “Funeral etiquette

  1. I have so, so many thoughts about what you wrote…it captures so many of the issues I struggle with in reconciling doctrine with the raw, messy love for God that brings me to the church doors. I think that the question about why visitors would decline to sing, but willingly lined up for communion or a blessing has to do with hunger versus fulfillment. When I open my hymnal to sing out, the impetus to make a joyful noise trumps modesty or fear of public singing because of the fulfilled covenant of membership in the body of Christ. When I approach the altar rail, what moves me forward is a hunger to know Him more, to draw closer to the divine, to be blessed, to be fed. I think even the least “religious” among us feel that longing. The beauty of open communion is the willingness to feed that hunger, irrespective of doctrine.

    • Thank you, Genie, for your beautiful post. I, too, have always believed that the thing that leads people to rise up and come to the altar for Communion (whether they really “get it” or not) is that deep hunger for God that each one of us has inside us. As St. Augustine captured so perfectly “Our hearts are restless til they find their rest in Thee.”

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