Ministry to the Bereaved
Part 3 Pastoral Issues

Chapter f53 Bereavement Ministry

Preliminary Questions

Bibliography

Key Moments

Student Reports

Listening to the Family
Preparing Funeral Homilies
A Vision for Ministry

Guide for Visiting the Bereaved

Regrets

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

What are the most important practical things that need to be done when planning a funeral?  What are the key pastoral skills needed to accomplish this ministry well? 

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Bibliography

Training Bereavement Ministers:  Funeral Planning. Catholic Update Video, Order # V2092  ($39.95) St. Anthony Messenger Press  phone 1-800-488-0488.

From Bitter to Better, Patricia Livingston. Audio Cassette Tape, St. Anthony Messenger Press A6411.

How to be a Prayer Partner: A Guide to Becoming a Healing Companion.  Carole Riley, C.D.P., Ph. D.  Two Audio Cassette Tapes A6520

The Sacred Art of Dying: Living With Hope, Richard Groves. Audio Cassette Tapes, St. Anthony Messenger Press A8080.

Ten Commandments of Grief Ministry, Richard Groves.  Audio Cassette Tapes, St. Anthony Messenger Press A8201.

Death Penalty:  A Catholic Viewpoint.  Sr. Helen Prejean, C.S.J.,  Two Audio Cassette Tapes, St. Anthony Messenger Press A7000

John D. Witvliet,  A Time to Weep:  Liturgical lament in times of crisis;  http://www.reformedworship.org/article/june-1997/time-weep-liturgical-lament-times-crisis

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Key Moments in the Pastoral Care
of the Dying, Deceased, and the Bereaved

1.  As death approaches
Viaticum
Prayers for the dying
Apostolic Blessing
Preliminary planning for funeral

2.  Time of death
Commendation of the dying
Contacting the funeral home
Washing the body
Family visits the body

3.  The Wake
Evening Prayer / Rosary
Visitation by family and friends
Story telling / eulogies / memories shared
Last look before sealing the casket

4.  Procession to the church (if the wake was at home of the deceased or in the funeral home)
Prayers for receiving the body at the church
Baptism:  light, water, garment, etc.

5.  Eucharist
Gathering Rites
Story Telling
Meal Sharing
Commissioning
Final commendation

6.  Procession to the cemetery
Blessing the grave
Prayers in the cemetery
Lowering the body into the grave

7.  Afterward
Meal by parish or in the home
Triduum; nine days; anniversary
Cards
Memorial Masses
All Souls' Day

 

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LISTENING TO THE FAMILY

Student report (June 2001) reprinted here with permission

Connect the family with the parish
Plan the funeral liturgy

Listen
Assure them of the prayers of the parish at Sunday Mass.  We're here to help.

"What happened?"
"Was the death unexpected?" 
(the less prepared, the more traumatic, e.g. hospice vs. car accident)

"Have you had any recent funerals in the family?"
(Past experience guides today's decisions.)

Who is the decision maker in the family?
Get their phone number
 "Who is taking care of you?"

"Was N. able to get to church much?"
"How about others in the family?" (How churched is the family?)
 Are they practicing Catholics?  Another faith?         
Check if they are registered, assume that they aren't

"What arrangements have you made with the funeral home?
(Have funeral home fax its obituary info to you as soon as possible)
burial or cremation
prayers at funeral home and/or Mass at church

"Is there anything in particular you would like at the funeral?"
"A funeral Mass is like a regular Mass except we begin at the church doors with the coffin and walk in together"
"What name did N. go by?"
scripture: reader must be able to read--look for teachers, public speakers
particular priest/deacon: Fr. David's day off is Monday, Fr. Sean Wednesday
eulogies:  at the vigil, after communion or before first reading
poems or inspirational reading: same as a eulogy
secular music: at vigil, before Mass or at the graveside
mementos and photos:  put in the entrance of the church
reception hosted by the parish:  if requested, we provide drinks and a room

THE MOURNER IS ALWAYS RIGHT.  You cannot deny something without offering something else in its place.

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Preparing Funeral Homilies

Student report (June 2001) reprinted here with permission

What happened?  Tell about the last months and the last 24 hours. How did he die? What happened? Who found him? Was it unexpected? How old was he? Young? Tragic? Survivors? The assembly needs to know that it is okay (and healing) to talk about death in its details.

What about the living? Tell what is happening to the deceased's friends and family from a non-religious perspective. Being in shock, crying, feeling dazed, and being unable to eat or sleep are common initial responses. The death resurfaces when dinner leftovers remind the wife that there is one less at the table. A boy won't have his dad to teach him to throw the baseball. At Christmas, everyone will be wishing with all their heart for the one gift that they cannot have back. Naming these reactions reassures the mourners that their feelings are normal. Instead of dismissing the death with trite phrases such as "He's gone to a better place," or "Now you have an angel in heaven," naming death's effects treats the living with respect.

What does faith have to say? The creed professes we believe in the communion of saints, forgiveness of sin, resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. What does any of this have to do with the reality of death?

Now what? What comes out of faith's reflection on this life and death? How have our beliefs changed? What do we do after the funeral?

Remember

Funerals are major evangelization events. Most present are not Catholic. Most of the Catholics present have not been in a church for years, including the family of the deceased. Avoid triumphalism ("he repented for his years away from the Church"), clich├ęs ("he has gone to a better place"), and unexplained Catholic phrases ("the communion of the saints"). SMILE.

The four purposes of the funeral rites are to console the living, commend the dead to God, give thanks for the gift of a life, and proclaim Christ's death and resurrection. Offering only words of consolation offers nothing more than a Hallmark card. Offer meaning that this world (and Hallmark) cannot give.

Let the rites do their thing. Vest for the Vigil. Chant if you can, or bring a cantor. 60% of what people get is from the action of song, prayers, gestures, procession, and incense, 30% of what people get is how these are done, and a whopping 10% of what people get is what is actually said.

Encourage families to say something at the vigil or the burial. Welcome friends to reminisce or show a photo. Eulogies are centered on the deceased and are appropriate at the Vigil and the grave side and before the readings at the funeral Mass. The funeral Mass (and every Mass) is centered on the paschal mystery of the Lord Jesus Christ (Order of Christian Funerals, 141).

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A Vision for Bereavement Ministry

Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church
Student report (June 2001) reprinted here with permission

Bereavement ministry integrates death into the life of the parish and the Goldenrod community.  Death is not a private, unexpected event affecting a family and a few friends.  The parish is not simply a backdrop where the funeral service takes place.  Sickness, dying, death and grieving are a holy time in the life of the parish.

Sickness   Although they are out of sight, shut-ins, elderly and the sick are part of the parish.  Visiting the sick is a corporal act of mercy.  We minister to them primarily through ministers to the sick who become their link to the parish.  The parish priests visit for the sacraments of anointing and reconciliation and to establish the credibility of the minister of the sick.  The care and follow-up are coordinated by the staff Minister to the Sick.

Preparation   Planning one's will and funeral is the norm, not the exception.  It is a time, like Lent or Advent, to prepare for a great mystery.  The minister to the sick or hospice worker becomes a family's link to the parish.  He or she brings in the priest or deacon for the prayers of the dying.  The minister might also be a funeral planner, able to help the family and dying person make the transition from sickness to dying.  They accompany the family along the way, like a sponsor accompanies a catechumen.  Regular formation of the "bereavement sponsors" develops them as a community where they can learn from each other and what comes next.

Liturgy   The funeral liturgies follow the Order of Christian Funerals:  vigil, Mass, burial.  They are done in light of good liturgical sensibilities, both beautiful and meaningful even to those unchurched or of another faith.  As many of the parish as possible, especially the bereavement ministers, attend the funeral liturgies.  The vigil may be at the church, home, or funeral home.   If the body is to be cremated, it is preferably done after the funeral Mass.  People gather after the funeral rites, either at a home or a parish reception. 

Mystagogia   After the funeral, support groups help the grieving people reflect on the dying, death and funeral of their loved ones. The minister to the sick might be there.  The inward direction should become outward and lead to service.  At some point, the survivors may get involved in bereavement ministry, hospice, Rainbows, consumer education.    

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Guide for Visiting the Bereaved

During the course 12:425 Anointing and Funerals offered at Saint Meinrad School of Theology during the summer semester of 2010, the three participants in the course each composed a list of the ten most important things a minister to the bereaved should know and/or do.  The following is a compilation of their suggestions. 

Things to remember when visiting the bereaved and assisting them with planning the funeral liturgy:

Remote preparation: Clarify who is requesting/approving the visit to the bereaved. Call to arrange the time for the visit. Be on time and dress appropriately. Pray for guidance in everything you do.

At the door:  Be prepared for anything and dispense of expectations at the door. Attempt to establish a relationship with the bereaved if one does not already exist.

During the visit: Comfort the bereaved. Be present with empathy not pity. Validate the feelings of the bereaved and try to meet them wherever they are at in their grief. Sensitivity to the grief of the bereaved is most important. Listen. Allow the bereaved to lead the conversation; don't domineer. Be quick to listen and slow to speak. Listen without judging and maintain a commitment of confidentiality for the bereaved, who in this vulnerable state of grief might share things they ordinarily would not. Comfort the bereaved by listening not suggesting. Be very cautious about giving any advice. Avoid comparing the grief the bereaved is experiencing to your own experiences of grief: they are not the same.

Planning the funeral: Use pastoral sensitivity in the planning of the funeral so as to try to make the family members helping with the funeral arrangements feel included. Encourage remembering of the deceased but be careful not to press them with too many questions about funeral arrangements if they are not ready to talk. Understand that each relationship with the deceased is unique and so also will the way each person grieves

PrayerEncourage honest prayer. Offer to pray together with the family/friends present if it seems appropriate during your visit. Refer to God as comforter during times of loss but avoid saying or implying that it was God's will for the person to die. Accept what the bereaved has to say; you do not have to defend God. God can handle their anger or other feelings. Pray with them if they wish; pray for them if they don't.

Follow up:  Judge from the cues they give you regarding the length of the visit.  Assure the bereaved of the sympathy and support of the parish community you represent. Ask what you can do, if anything, that would help them now. Follow up with phone calls or other visits. Offer your availability for follow up visits.

* * * * *

During the course 12:425 Anointing and Funerals offered at Saint Meinrad School of Theology during the spring semester of 2006, the participants in the course each composed a list of "ministry guidelines", things that are important in our own ministry to the bereaved and/or things that we would make the major emphasis of a training session we might conduct for parish ministers to the bereaved.  Together we evaluated and prioritized the items. The list that follows contains the items that the participants voted most important.

1.  At the funeral Mass, focus on Christ rather than the individual deceased person - focus on the relationship between the paschal mystery and our own death.  Put the emphasis on the paschal mystery; our death is our participation in Jesus' own death and resurrection.  - 7 votes           

2.  Be respectful and allow the bereaved to mourn in their own way and in their own time.  Allow the mourners to grieve.  Show that grieving is a natural process with no time table, yet a process each must go through.  Present a healthy Christian understanding of our own frailty and impending death.  Refer to God as comforter, source of peace and a healer in time of loss.  - 7 votes

3.  First resolve your own personal grief and losses.  Do not bring your personal sorrow to others.  Examine your personal believes about death and life after death. Develop a personal theology of death that will support your efforts to comfort the bereaved from a faith perspective of hope. - 6 votes

4.  Be totally present to the bereaved.  By our very presence and care (physical presence, phone calls, meals, prayers or cards) we are saying you are important, you are not forgotten, you are loved. "Love is to suffer with."  Listen, provide support, and assist them by connecting them with other appropriate sources of support as needed.   - 5 votes

5.  Have a working understanding of the stages of grief (as described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross), in an effort to meet the needs of the bereaved at the stage they are.  Do not expect a sequential response to death. - 5 votes

6.  No matter how calm, cool and collected they may look on the outside, often there are strong emotions roiling around inside the bereaved.  Allow them to express whatever they can, in whatever way they can, and do not be surprised at anything they might say. - 4 votes

7.  Gently help the bereaved to acknowledge the reality and the mystery of death.  It is O.K. to use the words "death" and "dead."  It is O.K. to question and to ask "why?"  - 4 votes

8.  Listening and assessing a situation is crucial in our interaction with the sick, as we are entering into their personal lives at a vulnerable and painful time.  Listen; patiently assess the circumstances.  We speak volumes with our silence. - 4 votes

9.  Be pastorally sensitive to the relationship between the mourners and the deceased. Gather information about that relationship and honestly reflect that.  - 3 votes

10.  Accept and affirm where the bereaved is psychologically and spiritually at a particular stage.  - 3 votes

11.  Catechize the whole parish about their responsibilities as the family of Christ, and their ability to offer support to those who mourn. - 3 votes

12.  Be pastorally sensitive.  A minister or pastoral person, at any level, must acquire finesse and communication skills in order to be constructive in a time of crisis and suffering. - 3 votes

* * * * * *

During the course 12:639 Anointing and Funerals offered at Saint Meinrad School of Theology during the spring semester of 2010, the participants in the course each composed a list of "ministry guidelines", things that are important in our own ministry to the bereaved and/or things that we would make the major emphasis of a training session we might conduct for parish ministers to the bereaved.

1.  Never say things which diminish one's experience of grief e.g. it was God's will, well it was just his time, you know he suffered so much and now he is in a better place--7 votes

2.  First resolve your own personal grief and losses. Do not bring your personal sorrow to others. -- 7 votes

3.  The minister should be of a great sense of prayer in the entire process as this will help healing and bring peace to the bereaved family. -- 7 votes

4.  Your first role as pastor is not to solve problems but to incarnate the divine presence for the bereaved family. Never forget who you are and what you represent. -- 7 votes

5.  Never say things which diminish one's experience of grief e.g. it was God's will, well it was just his time, you know he suffered so much and now he is in a better place. -- 7 votes

6.  Grief takes a long time. Your constant presence to the family when it feels right after the funeral and praying with them help heal the hurt -- 6 votes

7.  Grief takes a long time. Your constant presence to the family when it feels right after the funeral and praying with them help heal the hurt -- 6 votes

8.  If possible it is good to give awareness that funeral is not just a family issue but it involves the larger church community and the whole society. -- 6 votes

9.  Every family is unique in itself; openness to diversity is crucial therefore every situation should be treated differently. -- 4 votes

10.  Get to know who is the contact person and make communication with such person as best as possible, including knowing the real or apparent conflicts around the funeral. -- 4 votes

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Regrets

The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, by Bonnie Ware (an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives)

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

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To Think About

What do you consider to be the key issues in ministry to the bereaved?  What are the most important "pitfalls" to be avoided? 

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter, Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist, Cincinnati Ohio, Order of Friars Minor. All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made, to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 08/12/14 .  Your comments are welcome at trichstatter@franciscan.org