I have recently had the occasion to have some deep conversations with folks about the purpose of funerals. And I have been impressed by the answers that have arisen. What does the Church propose as the real purpose?
First: Yes, it is obvious, but the purpose of a funeral perspective is to give sacred context and meaning to the most basic of works of mercy: burying the dead. It is a event filled with pain and grief, but with expectant hope in the resurrection. In the words of Psalm 126, “Those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy.”
Second: Praying for the Dead. Listen to the prayers of the funeral liturgy. They are all directed to this purpose. If we fail to pray for the soul of the faithful departed, then we have failed as badly as if we don’t accomplish the first purpose. It is a sin of omission to fail to do for the deceased what we can truly accomplish for them with our prayers. Hence you will never find me claiming to be the Pope and pronouncing someone to be in heaven.
Third: Consoling the living. Yes a legitimate purpose. But not the only, and not the primary purpose. In fact, in the funeral liturgy it takes a distant third place in terms of attention given to this explicitly. Our consolation comes from union with Christ, and finding strength in his redemptive mission and message. Thus I’d like to exhort and remind you of the importance of praying for our friends and relatives who have passed away. The whole month of November takes on a aspect of this character from the beginning feasts of All Saints and All Souls. In the church we have set up a book for you to write down the names of your deceased friends and family. This book will be here for the entire month of November, so that we can keep before our minds this great work of praying for the souls of the deceased. I will often stop and check the book and say a prayer for the repose of these souls. At the end of the month, a Mass will be offered for all of them as well.
Praying for the dead is one of the most basic acts of charity that we can possibly do. Often when we miss somebody, we grieve for them, and we feel sharply the pain of their loss. But that pain can have a purpose in God’s salvific plan. When we give it back to Jesus, offering it up to Him for the benefit of our loved ones, then it becomes meritorious. It becomes for us a share in Christ’s own sufferings, and hence is able to assist those whom we love by our freely embracing this cross. Jesus said that the greatest act of love is to “lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Indeed we do this when we pray for the repose of the souls of those who have passed away, and for the consolation of those who love them.