I just “returned” from attending the funeral mass of a friend. I’ve been to several Catholic services, but never before a Catholic funeral mass. I play bridge in a little local duplicate group. In the before times, we played in someone’s home, and usually had 2 or 3 tables. Now we mostly play on BBO with a concurrent zoom session (so we can chat) and because BBO doesn’t handle teams games with 3 tables very well, we are limited to 8 players at a time. Pat was a regular in the game, until cancer made it harder for her. She still played from time to time, when she was up to it, until near the end, however.
For a number of reasons I decided to attend the on-line version, and not attend the mass in person. I was disappointed that it was only a live-stream, and not a zoom, but I guess Catholic masses aren’t very interactive (except for communion, which I wasn’t going to do anyway) so the choice makes sense for them.
The service opened with a young woman welcoming us to the celebration of Pat’s life. Not knowing the proper terminology, I am going to refer to her as the cantor, since her role in the service was similar to that of a cantor in ours. Then the priest led a procession into the sanctuary, which included the casket and the immediate family. I was a little surprised that the pall bearers appeared to be professionals, and not family members. (I was a pall bearer once, and except for the emotional aspect, it’s very easy.)
As a Jew, I always find the word “celebration” uncomfortable at funerals. Sure, if you are doing a memorial service months later, after most of the mourners have mostly recovered, I suppose it’s okay. But when Jews go to funerals, we mourn, we don’t celebrate. We rip our clothes and sob and stand around looking glum. (Well, technically, we rip our clothes upon learning of the death, but it’s customary to wear a piece of ripped cloth at the service, as a symbol of that, and so everyone know who the principal mourners are.)
Jewish funerals also feature only a few prayers, and a lot of remembrances. Reform Judaism teaches that the dead live on in the memory of the living, so it’s important to remember our dead and tell stories about them. The focus of this mass was, not surprisingly, resurrection through Jesus Christ.
It was an abbreviated mass, with only one reading (from the NT) and no sermon. Everyone was masked, except those who were speaking, and the congregants appeared to be distanced, with a cluster here and a cluster there. The casket sat in the front of the center aisle throughout the service. It was a fairly simple wooden casket draped with a fabric cross.
The priest promised that we would hear remembrances of Pat, but there weren’t many of those. The priest spent several minutes talking about her piety, and her service to the church, fairly early in the service. Then there were some prayers on the theme of eternal life and resurrection, most led by the cantor.
Then the priest offered communion, beginning with the family, and asked that everyone else who wanted to partake line up on either side of the casket after the family. The priest offered communion to the family, and those on those to my right, and the cantor offered communion to those on my left. I noticed that all of the family lined up, but one did not partake of communion. Presumably, he’s not a Catholic. The officiants only offered the wafer to the congregation, although the priest drank some wine at the start, after blessing the offering, which I think he called the gift. (Or, I guess he actually transubstantiated it. I’m not sure how one describes that process.) This was the only portion of the service where the priest wore a mask, presumably so the congregants could take theirs off, briefly, to accept the wafer.
After communion, there was more discussion of eternal life in Jesus Christ, and some more prayers and hymns. While this took place, the priest drank the rest of the wine, rinsed the cup with water and drank that, and then wiped the cup out with a cloth. That struck me as odd, but then I remembered that the dregs of wine were literally the blood of Jesus Christ, so of course you can’t just pour it down the sink and wash the cup with soap and water after the service. (which I’m sure is what my congregation does with the kiddush cup and any wine left in it after the service.)
Eventually (about 40 minutes in), two of her daughters stood up, and and one spoke a little about her life, while the other offered support. While she said nice things about her mother’s life, I was disappointed that I didn’t learn anything interesting about Pat. I knew that she visited Canada every summer, and was gracious and welcoming to her friends, and I would have assumed she was a devoted mother and grandmother had I ever thought about it. Of course, it’s very hard to write a eulogy for your mom – my brother took on that task because none of us wanted to. But I missed having a random assortment of friends speak about different aspects of the deceased, which is the norm in a Jewish funeral, and common in other Christian memorial services I’ve attended.
Then a couple more prayers about eternal life, and the priest and cantor lit an incense holder on a chain, and the priest wafted incense over the casket from several directions. Google tells me the container is called a thurible, and the thurible reminded me a lot of the spice-holder that Jews use in the end-of-Sabbath service, and I wondered if there’s any historical connection between the two. And if not, what is the origin of that ritual.
Finally, the congregation receded to “Ode to Joy”. The recession was led by the priest, walking backwards, then the casket, then the family, and finally, everyone else.
I confess to morbidly wondering what was in the casket, as the notice said the family was cremating the body. Did the casket contain the ashes? A chilled body?
I’m sorry there was no “book” I could sign. The Temple has promised to give us a list of who was on my mom’s zoom service, after they get around to processing the recording.
Ashes to ashes…