Going to your (Catholic) funeral

I went to a funeral today.

I feel like I write a lot about going to funerals. I wish I didn’t have the opportunity. But I do, and they make me think. This was the first funeral I’ve been to in the years since I left the catholic church where I wasn’t one of the primary mourners. My granduncle died. Though I loved him dearly, I am neither his daughter nor his granddaughter. I had the space to think a little about what was happening, about what I found beautiful and comforting and what I did not.

Being at a mass is difficult. I have such profoundly negative feelings towards the catholic church, but I respect the fact that this is a church to which my uncle was incredibly devoted. There’s a very fine line between attending, showing respect and expressing grief for the person I love, and not being dishonest about my own position. So I do what a lot of people do: I attend, I sit quietly on a pew, I listen to the words being said and try to focus on the reminiscences and individual meanings. I do not kneel when asked, though, and I do not say any prayers. I’m the only person I can see who can kneel who isn’t. That feels strange, and I feel so self-conscious. I think my integrity needs me to not kneel, though. I don’t go for Communion. I do shake hands when this is offered- but I always meet someone’s eyes with a question before shaking hands with them, and am happy to smile instead. Because I do want to share solidarity and compassion, and because I don’t want to foist unwanted contact on anyone. I feel like my integrity demands that I do this, too. I feel profoundly aware that I am not a Catholic.

I listen to the singing. It’s beautiful. I will never deny the aching, tragic beauty and hope of the requiem. The choir are people my uncle sang with for decades. Their voices are strong and clear, just like his was. Listening, I think about how so much of religion is based on this moment- when we acknowledge that everything and everyone must end, when we grieve and ache and we long to create and communicate what they meant and who they were. How much of it is simply the impossibility of reconciling this.

Then they talk about his life, about all the things that he did- about his love of sport and his time as President of Richmond Rugby Club, about his devotion to his family. His love of music, his skill as a carpenter, the love he shared with his wife. And then they say that with a life so well lived, he will surely be rewarded generously after his death. And I think that they’ve missed the point. The huge, beautiful point that a life so well lived rewards itself so many times over, that the things and people to which he was devoted must have been such a rich and beautiful reward for him. The hundreds of people who came to his funeral, the deep love in their grief, the stories they all had- isn’t this the reward? Can’t we just celebrate and grieve a life?

But I don’t say any of this, because I know his faith was as important to him as all of the rest of it. And I know that he probably spent his last moments looking forward to reuniting with the people who he loved who have already gone. And in my own way I do respect that. More than that, I do understand it. There were moments at that mass, when the priest described what those reunions much be like, that I let myself imagine them. In those moments, I longed for it to be true. I don’t believe, but I do understand.

And then we are at the grave. It is bitterly cold, the noise of the wind through the trees almost drowning out our voices. Until one person starts to sing, and another, and another. And in the cold and the rain, huddled together against the biting wind, we raise our voices in sadness, in joy, and in love.

In that moment I realise that this is what we do. We comfort each other and we love each other. When we are dying and in pain, we take away the pain and we sit with and hold and comfort each other. When we are scared, we stand with each other and we hold each other. When we grieve, we stand together, we make endless cups of tea, and we love each other. In that moment, I know that that’s enough.

Going to your (Catholic) funeral

9 thoughts on “Going to your (Catholic) funeral

    1. 2.1

      Thank you! He really did- and it’s funny how sometimes it’s not until someone’s funeral that you find out about all the things they got up to before you arrived. Just in time that you can’t ask them to tell you all about it.

  1. 3

    Yes…..I am frequently in that position at funerals, as it is the custom in County Clare that practically the whole community attends funerals. This is very therapeutic for the people who are grieveing IMO. When my aunt died – 5 years ago – I had the wake in the local country church which she attended for most of her life. When her friends and neighbours had filed past and some who were close to her had kissed her, I gave her a final kiss and put the lid on her cofin. As she was a fiddle player, I had a recording of hers playing in the background. Next day, I spoke in the church at the funeral and gave a secular talk about her life (as it happens, she was cynical of religion, and I said this). At the graveside her musician friends played her favourite traditional tunes. As far as I am concerned……the church building was built by the public and I paid the priest. I would like if there was a secular venue….perhaps in the future. ‘Round here right now, a farmer would be much more affected by (for instance) finding eggs buried in his garden than he would by being denounced by the catholic church (most would become local heros). That is why the cc in Ireland are obsessive about holding on to Pramary Schools….their control is only skin deep. I don’t like them.

  2. 5

    I’ve been a Humanist celebrant in London for 16 years and our ceremonies, of course, are always about the person’s life and I hope that people learn some new things about the person who has died during the funeral which is nearly always in a crematorium. I am on a mission, however, to encourage people to hold the funeral ceremony within the community- in a hotel/commmunity centre/pub/garden/residential home. In Britain funeral atttendence can be very small and so it is possible to have the ceremony at home. Often it would be a small group of immediate family /friends who would go to the crematorium for the committal and return to the venue afterwards. (I had the privilege of taking the funeral for Dave Allen, the comedian, in 2007)

    We also encourage people to send thoughts/happy memories to the family/next-of-kin before and after the funeral.You get a lot more compared to the quick message from a sympathy card that way and the bereaved have something to look back on in time to come.

    It is usually at least a week later for funerals over here compared to back home. I just don;’t know why Irish people are still putting up with the unseemly rush to to hold the funeral within a day or two. Goodness knows how emigrants get back in time and at great expense. There is no reason why this shouldn’t change but the demand will need to come from the people to change the culture. This would greatly help anyone who wishes to hold a non-religious funeral or to do it themselves.

    Having tributes/eulogies by family and friends at a funeral as they say Goodbye can be important in bereavement and can help people as they get on with the next stage of their lives.

    Jeanne Rathbone

  3. 7

    Sorry for the late comment…

    Since I read this post first I’ve had some really bad experiences of religious funerals; priests giving boiler-plate eulogies that discuss the profound faith of friends who never went to church (except for other funerals) being the main issue. It makes it harder to connect with the event for exactly the reasons of integrity you wrote about but also the laziness of it and the carelessness of people’s feelings and memories. I suppose it’s like saying goodbye to the wrong person.

    At my godmother’s funeral priest took it on himself to veer off into his irrelevant personal politics and rambled on about how empty, dark and hopeless the lives of atheists are. He made atheists sound like we exist in a Lovecraftian miasma of doom. At a neo-pagan funeral the room was split down the middle, literally, on sectarian lines. Neither side applauded the others’ eulogies. It was weird and mean and generally awful. I can’t wait for the day, which is overdue but on the way, when we just memorialise some one with as much or as little ritual as is appropriate at whatever venue we choose.

    1. 7.1

      I had the same experience at my grandmother’s Catholic funeral and I was quite upset by it. The priest’s words were irrelevant and inappropriate 🙁

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