When You’re Dead, You Will Want the Mass — Not a ‘Lay-Led Funeral’

A person who has died needs our prayers, and there is no greater or better prayer for the dead than the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offers the Funeral Mass of Pope St. John Paul II, April 8, 2005, in St. Peter’s Square.
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offers the Funeral Mass of Pope St. John Paul II, April 8, 2005, in St. Peter’s Square. (photo: Ricardo Stuckert / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0 BR)

According to La Croix, an international liberal journal that focuses on Catholic issues, lay-led funerals have been common in France since the 1970s, particularly “in rural areas, where there are greater distances to cover.” The outlet reports some pushback from French Catholics (“a ‘tremor’ and nowhere near an earthquake”). Some say the lay-led funeral is a “’second-class funeral’ or only a quasi-religious celebration” which the author hastens to assure it is untrue because the lay leaders have been “commissioned” by the Church.

La Croix, which tends to push for lay-led events because it sees so-called “clericalism” lurking everywhere, advises that, despite the pushback, many people can “more easily relate to and confide in” lay persons rather than priests. Besides, La Croix informs us that a funeral is not a sacramental rite and so does not require a priest.

Whether or not to have a lay- or priest-led funeral is, according to one French diocesan “head of funeral ministry,” a question of “whether communion [sic] would be meaningful to the congregation present that day. Even if the deceased was a practicing Catholic, if none of his or her relatives plan to take communion, there is no reason to justify a Eucharistic celebration.” 

Let’s unpack that thinking.

First, the priorities are wrong. There is a huge reason to justify a Eucharistic celebration, especially “if the deceased was a practicing Catholic” — and that reason is the deceased himself. The person who has died needs our prayers, and there is no greater or better prayer for the dead than the Sacrifice of the Mass. Of that, Church tradition has been crystal clear for a lot longer than 1971, the year this dispensation entered into force in France. Of particular significance is the celebration of Mass, where possible, on the days of death, burial and the anniversary of death. Granted, that’s not commonplace, especially on the day of death, but a funeral Mass within a few days of death (traditionally, three) has been common.  Long Catholic tradition attached particular significance of marking the 30 days after a person’s death and, of course, the practice of arranging for the celebration of Gregorian Masses — a series of 30 consecutive Masses for a deceased person — goes back more than a millennium. 

There is nothing the dead needs more than prayer, and there is no better prayer for the dead than Christ’s Eucharistic Sacrifice. That, not whether receiving Communion figures in the plans of the dead’s secularized relatives, justifies a Eucharistic celebration.

La Croix is technically correct that rites associated with burial are sacramental and not sacraments, “unlike weddings.” But let’s pursue that distinction. 

At one time in the United States, many weddings were also celebrated outside of Mass. There is even a rite for Marriage Outside Mass in the Rite of Matrimony. But, especially since Vatican II, good pastors have discouraged that practice, because the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen gentium, No. 11), to which all the sacraments are oriented. They belong together. 

So, too, do funerals.

Second, flipping the question so that the “main criterion” of whether to have a funeral Mass is the attendees is very much a modern and postmodern mentality that claims funerals are about the living, not the dead. That’s just not true, although it reinforces the egotistical focus on me-and-the-present that is an anti-sign of our times. Funerals should support the living, too, but to shift the gravamen of attention from the deceased’s needs for prayer and spiritual suffrages to the behavior of the mourners is an unjust change. Let’s be blunt: the living have no right to preempt a funeral’s focus on the dead unless they’re willing to trade places with him.

La Croix admits that younger priests in France have seized upon funerals as “an opportune ‘place for evangelization,’” although the journal bemoans inadequate “training” for clergy to “accompany people” or enter “into dialogue with the families” at those times.

I’ll grant that, from my American experience, priests need more training in this area and basic humanity presupposes connecting to people, especially at watershed moments like death. But let’s also be clear: “accompaniment” and “dialogue” should not fudge the question at that kairos, that “moment of grace,” to invite and even challenge people about their faith or lack of it. 

Death is a shocking moment.  That’s why it’s a punishment. It demands a taking stock of the direction of my life. If funerals are “about the living,” they are not just about creating the equivalent of some “spiritual safe space” with rituals as religious teddy bears and hot cocoa. Funerals are first and foremost about the living in terms of asking them — perhaps starkly — quo vadis? Where are you going? What’s the direction of your life? It’s stark, because that body is saying: “me today, you tomorrow.” There’s a funeral in every one of our lives, our one guaranteed “participation award.”

Only a hollowed-out shell of faith would fix on funerals primarily as a question of “lay” leadership. Paradoxically, the La Croix article actually exhibits a kind of perverse “clericalism” — because of its allergy to clerical presence and the legalistic focus on what the laity can be “commissioned” to do, it would deprive the faithful departed of what they need most — Eucharistic prayer — to make a tertiary disciplinary point.

France expects the number of funerals to rise as an aging society dies off. It is a highly secular society. If I can share a personal example: I attended Sunday Mass about 20 years ago in a rural parish in Brittany. The rich artistry of that 17th-century church bore silent witness to a once-vibrant faith in that little village. I had then just turned 40. None of the dozen or so people at Mass that morning was any less than 15 years older than me. 

Do we simply assume that secularity is a fait accompli, to be accepted rather than challenged?

La Croix correctly notes “Catholic theology is so focused on death and resurrection that it can be surprising that priests are practically absent from this crucial moment.” What’s surprising is that we haven’t pushed back on that absence.

The United States also has a shrinking and aging presbyterate, led by a generation of lock-and-leave bishops demonstrating their “stewardship” by closing what an earlier brick-and-mortar episcopate left them. I have no doubt there will also be pressures to “laicize” funerals in this country, especially in priest-poor regions where it is currently a fact. We need to keep our priorities straight: sacramentally, and who a funeral is for.