When I was a very young Altar Boy in the early 60’s I thought the saddest thing ever were the funeral masses with no one to mourn the deceased except the funeral directors and a few of the nuns from the convent next door to the church.
The Monsignor would intone the Latin prayers,
“Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat eis.”
(Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them.)
we would respond,
“EXSULTABUNT Domino ossa humilitata.”
(They shall rejoice in the Lord, the bodies which have been humbled.)
incense wafted to the ceiling in the enormous space, the organ echoed the eternal hymns, yet there was an eeriness to the scene. The pall covered coffin, alone in the huge center aisle, the pews where family normally sat, empty. Yet there was also the deep faith-borne meanings of the rituals themselves.
The music, movements, prayers, vestments and the presence of the dead all were, and are, a part of how we begin the process of separating ourselves from a loved one who has died.
I was reminded this week of the tales of clerics being held up by assistants as they prayed over the dead of the Great Plague. Exhausted to the point of death but still faithful in their vocation. One cannot fathom the weariness and despair that they must have endured yet they served as they were called to do.
Likewise, in this time of COVID-19, we who serve the dead, and their families, the funeral directors, embalmers, and clergy face some enormous challenges in striving to continue our vocations as best we are able.
Our experiences are not likely to be as daunting as those Medieval servants, but they are challenging in their own ways.
Our customs surrounding death and dying in the United States vary from area to area, faith to faith, and family to family. Yet the one constant is that we gather. In this gathering we strive to bring to the families of the dead a sense of comfort, acknowledge their grief, mourn with them and guide them through the initial pain and emotional numbness into a new reality of life without their loved one.
I’m sure we have all experienced a family that has for one reason or another-bad advice, a sense of overwhelming denial or difficult family dynamics-opted for a direct cremation or a witnessed drop instead of any services. We also have witnessed the extended and complicated grief this often produces. We have used these experiences, as have generations of practitioners before, us to inform our own thoughts and actions in guiding families through the complex labyrinth that is human loss and grief.
In this current environment we need to be especially attuned to the needs of our families. We need to have a heightened and expanded sense of empathy for our families. While we strive to always remain professional and to maintain the appropriate boundaries, we all feel the pain of our families and carry that burden with us as part of our beings.
This situation calls upon us to tap into those experiences and accrued wisdom to do our utmost to serve our families.
This is NOT the time to take shortcuts on grief and mourning but rather to dig into our shared experiences and share ways in which we can create new and meaningful rituals for families. Tapping into the essence of the timeless rituals of death we can distill for each family a new paradigm of mourning in order to faithfully practice our vocation.
We cannot shunt the burden and tasks onto a nameless, faceless entity, “the government has decided we cannot have a service”, “the cemetery says we cannot gather at the graveside”. Rather, we are obligated to create to the best of our ability an environment that allows the families the opportunity to feel supported, know that we care and offers them outlets and rituals to express their grief and to mourn.
So, what can this look like? While we may be quick to turn to technology, livestreams, recordings and other “work-arounds” to the situation, these miss the nature of what is at the heart of our grief and mourning, and that is the loss. We must re-focus our work to a less macro view and a more micro view of each family’s situation. This means being as personal and truly caring and insightful as we can be.
I presided at a service a few days ago. There were just two adult children and their wives. Instead of the normal service, we sat and talked, I asked a lot about their mom, much like when we meet to prepare a service. They told stories. We shared a few poems and prayers. I noted that their mom had a rosary in her hands, and I asked about it and discovered that in the past she had been a practicing Catholic and the sons had attended Catholic school. I asked if we could use mom’s rosary to say a few Hail Mary’s. We each took turns, holding mom’s rosary, saying a decade of Hail Mary’s. When we finished, I did a commendation prayer and asked the brothers if they wanted to assist in closing mom’s casket.
I suggested they each take a flower from the arrangements to place in the casket. The two approached the casket, knelt on the prie-dieu for a moment and rose placing the flowers on mom’s chest. I moved the prie-dieu aside, and had them remove and fold the throw, fold in the overlay and replace the rosary. I showed one how to release the hinge and the other lowered and set the latch.
This simple ritual, on the fly, sensitive to their faith journey and heritage was done to help them focus not on the lack of family and mourners, not on the COVID-19 “rules” not on the isolation they were feeling, but on the essence of the ancient rituals, the dead and our separation from them.
Back in that echoing church with the smell of Vita Mundi lingering in the air and hazing the sunlight streaming through the stained glass and falling on the lonely casket I discovered one of the truths about grief. It is personal, timeless, knows no timeframes, ebbs and flows and never ends. I also became profoundly aware of the value of even tiniest of rituals, the folding of the pall, the ring of the censor chain in the silence, the placing of a hand upon the casket in farewell, all had meaning then, and have meaning still.
Let us all strive to do our best to let perpetual light shine upon them.