October 12, 2016 // Local

A Christian duty to comfort those who mourn

Mourners surround the casket of Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh during his burial service March 4, 2015, at Holy Cross Community Cemetery on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. According to the Book of Tobit, burying the dead was an important work of charity. The act of Christian burial means presence, our presence, to those who have died and to those who mourn.

By Mike Nelson

At the conclusion of a weekday morning Mass in a suburban Los Angeles parish some years ago, our pastor informed those in attendance that a funeral Mass was upcoming in a few minutes. He asked the assembly if they wouldn’t mind staying for the funeral.

“I don’t think the deceased had a large family or that many friends who will be attending,” the pastor said.

He was right. There was exactly one person in attendance, an older gentleman. The deceased was his uncle. A single person attending a loved one’s funeral. How sad is that?

Fortunately, many of the weekday Mass-goers stayed, and afterward offered their condolences to the deceased’s nephew who, sad as he was at losing his uncle, smiled gratefully.

In the Order of Christian Funerals (No. 4), we are told that the “church ministers to the sorrowing and consoles them in the funeral rites with the comforting word of God and the sacrament of the Eucharist.”

This suggests that “ministering” and “consoling” is everyone’s duty, certainly in the case of caring for those who have lost loved ones.

“The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the resurrection,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church in No. 2300. “The burial of the dead … honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.”

This does not require us to wield shovels, or carve headstones, or lower caskets into the earth (though some are called to do exactly that). Rather, it requires us to be present to those who mourn, to let them know that they and their departed are cared for and prayed for by the family of God.

My wife, in her role as parish director of liturgy, finds that some of her most rewarding work is in ministering to those who have lost loved ones and must plan funeral liturgies.

These are people who are not only sad and grieving, but often confused, emotional, possibly bitter or angry, and very much in need of a calm, compassionate, Christ-centered presence to help them plan a ceremony that offers at least a step toward healing.

And healing is what the corporal works of mercy are all about. When I, in my occasional role as liturgical accompanist, play piano at a funeral Mass, my most fervent prayer is to allow God to work through the skills he has blessed me with to bring comfort to those who mourn.

The act of Christian burial means presence, our presence, to those who have died and to those who mourn.

As the prayer of final commendation at the funeral Mass says: “May our farewell … ease our sadness and strengthen our hope. One day we shall joyfully greet him/her again when the love of Christ, which conquers all things, destroys death itself.”

Mike Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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