I ran into a resident of this parish recently, who asked me to sign a Mass card for him. A pen was procured, the signature added and details of the Mass intention noted.
He explained who the person who had died was – the grandmother of a lady who is on one of our ministry teams. I thanked him for that detail, adding that I would sympathise with her when next I saw her. To which he replied, “oh, of course, Father, you’re very busy,” before scampering off.
You might wonder if there’s a line or two missing from the above conversation, and if so, you’re not alone. I had to think awhile why a comment on my presumed busyness followed on from my undertaking to sympathise with a parishioner. And then the penny dropped: he was expecting me to say I would attend the lady’s funeral, the next day, in a church over an hour’s drive away.
I am sure many priests would have done that, good pastoral priests, responsive to their parishioners and attentive in the hour of grief. But I don’t.
My funeral rule is simple: I have to know the person who has died before I’ll attend their funeral. In every other case, I will sympathise with the bereaved in person, either in their home or outside the church as they come to Mass. Or if the loss has occurred in a family I was close to in a previous parish, I will write a personal note to the family. But only rarely will I attend the funeral of someone I did not personally know.
I used to be a serial funeral-goer, and I acknowledge that funerals in Ireland are great social occasions, places where you can meet a fair variety of people and have the chance to catch up with them at leisure. I also acknowledge that attendance at a funeral means a lot to mourners; I know from experience how much.
On the other hand, it was the experience of being in the ‘mourning seat’ that took the gloss off funerals for me. I did very much appreciate the kind people who turned up to sympathise with me on the loss of each of my parents, but I also appreciated those who got in touch in other ways, those who penned a personal letter or sent a thoughtful card, and also those who marked the little and large anniversaries that followed the death-days.
I have learned from my friends that there are many ways of sympathising. And I choose not to travel for hours and then queue up in distant churches for a quick handshake and a word of comfort.
I fear that more and more, this is all attendance at funerals boils down to: a fleeting moment, without a prayer or hardly a thought for the person who had died. A personal letter, or a prayer, might bring as much comfort. Too much funeral-going might be bad for our carbon footprint anyway!
Along a very familiar road…
A Gaeltacht undertaker taught me his rule of thumb for devising the route the funeral cortége should take. “An cóngaireach chun an teampall,” he said, “an timpeallacht chun na reilige” (the shortest route to the church, the longest to the grave). In some places this last journey is made very long indeed, around and around the church.
In my present parish, I have learned a different method of devising a route. When the corpse is taken to the church, the funeral director finds out the route the family took to go to Mass, and follows that way – a beautiful continuity.
An Englishman moved to Ireland and discovered that we do funerals differently. In his new parish, he had 16 funerals in his first year.
All the while, though, he was unsure what to say. His Irish neighbour gave wise advice: “You go up the front seat, and to each person you say ‘I’m sorry for your trouble’ — and move on. No long stories, keep moving!”
So at the next funeral, the innocent Englishman proceeded to the front seat, stuck out his hand and said “I am sorry for your trouble, now move on!” (and said the same to each startled mourner…)