By Kay Cozad
FORT WAYNE — Planning a funeral in today’s marketplace can be a confusing business, when faced with the multitude of traditional and not-so-traditional choices now available. In the current fast-paced American culture a rise in the need for expediency and convenience has begun to take precedence over tradition and religious ritual.
But according to Tom Alter, superintendent of Catholic Cemetery in Fort Wayne and director of cemeteries in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, though trends are shifting, the choice of full-body funeral Mass remains the preferred form of memorial service for Catholics in the area.
Currently a traditional funeral consists of a one-day viewing, which includes a vigil service with a rosary recitation, planned with the help of funeral home personnel. The vigil is typically a time when personal eulogies and stories are shared to honor the deceased loved one. Personal photos, videos, memorabilia and music highlight the gathering that precedes the funeral Mass.
The funeral Mass itself is planned in cooperation with the parish director of worship or liturgy. It is important, Alter points out, that family members meet directly with the parish personnel rather than allowing the funeral home to arrange the Mass. “If they don’t meet with the parish directly, they might not get exactly what they want,” he says.
Alter admits that there is a slow decline in the use of funeral Masses but speculates that the trend is due to individuals, especially the elderly, who are not making their funeral wishes known to family members before their death. “Parents need to make clear to their kids what they want. Write it down but send it to all the kids,” says Alter, who has experienced disagreements among siblings where only one has been given burial instructions.
Recently a shift has been noted toward replacing the funeral home viewing with a one- or two-hour visitation at the church before the funeral Mass. Cost is the primary factor in this trend, says Alter. “The funeral home charges to go to the church. So people are cutting it short to save money.”
Though cost can be prohibitive, Alter reminds the survivors that there is a rich Catholic tradition in the funeral vigil and Mass that assists in the grieving process. “It is a benefit to the survivor because the deceased’s wishes are being fulfilled. There’s a beauty to the Catholic funeral rite that makes you feel good when you leave. You have sent them (the deceased) off in the right way,” says Alter.
The funeral industry is also witnessing an increase in weekend services, due in large part to convenience. With the transient work schedule of the U.S. population, gathering for a funeral is now easier to accomplish over the weekend.
And with the nation’s environmental awakening in recent times, “green burials,” where the deceased’s body is placed in a shroud or decomposable coffin, and buried without chemical use or the vault, have become popular on the West Coast. But according to Alter this environmentally friendly burial trend has not hit the Midwest yet.
Memorial form is taking a new direction too with the boomer generation making its unique mark in cemeteries across the nation. Grand and imaginative monuments are fast replacing flat markers. Alter says this trend is in part due to cultural evolution. “This generation wants everyone to know about who is buried there,” he says, referring to the information laden monuments.
Cremation has become a popular alternative to full body burial with cost reduction of up to $6,500. Alter reports that cremation burial at the Catholic Cemetery has risen from 4 percent in 1991 to 14 percent today. However, he states that the increase remains well under the national average of over 34 percent.
Though the Catholic Church now accepts cremation funerals, it continues to encourage full body funerals with cremation and internment to follow the rite.
Alter reports that the Catholic Cemetery follows the teachings of the Church with regard to internment, especially concerning the dividing or spreading of the ashes. “We don’t treat cremation differently than we do full body burial. Scattering is not allowed. It’s not respectful,” he says.
Another nontraditional burial alternative is direct cremation, where the body goes directly to the crematorium and is then buried. There is no visitation or funeral service, which eliminates much of the cost of the funeral. Alter reports that this alternative is not used widely in the Midwest.
Though current trends are directed toward newer and more cost and time efficient alternatives to the traditional vigil and funeral Mass, it appears that the rich historic beauty of the full Catholic funeral rite continues to hold meaning for many Catholics who have a lost loved one.
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