Posted by Richard Rawlinson
I recently had a conversation with a priest about the topic du jour: same-sex civil partnerships–which offer legal equality–becoming known as marriages, so gaining semantic equality by reinterpreting a term traditionally reserved for the union between a man and woman as they become husband and wife.
For some reason, the discussion led me to ask why the funeral isn’t among the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. The rites of passage of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Matrimony are sacraments, as are Reconciliation (confession), Holy Orders (ordination), Anointing of the Sick (last rites) and, at the centre of it all, the Eucharist (mass). The priest’s answer: ‘The funeral mass comes within the sacrament of the Eucharist so doesn’t need to be a sacrament in itself’.
But both weddings and funerals vary between those in which Communion is offered to the congregation and those in which it isn’t, I replied. The nuptial mass and funeral mass sometimes omit the mass bit.
The choice of Eucharist or not is pragmatic, came the reply, as it reflects today’s mix of people attending marriages and funerals. Those planning their ceremonies might choose to dispense with the Eucharist in acknowledgement of the fact that many guests are not baptised and so cannot partake. To avoid the sacrilege of giving the Host inadvertently to someone not eligible, or of upsetting someone by offering a blessing but no Eucharist, such awkwardness is avoided. After all, he added, practicing Christians, who receive Communion regularly, can do so at another time.
But if the Eucharist isn’t an essential part of either ceremony, I persisted, this doesn’t explain why marriage stands on its own as a sacrament but funerals do not.
The explanation gets theologically technical here and, as the term ‘sacrament’ only relates to Catholic and Orthodox marriages anyway (Protestants dropped it as a sacrament), I’ll try to be brief to stay on message.
In a nutshell, all the sacraments are outward rituals bestowing inner grace. At baptism and last rites, we may be too young or too unconscious to participate in the way we do at confirmation and confession, but we believe divine grace occurs through the intermediary in holy orders. The same can be said of marriage but it stands apart from other sacraments as it’s a contract between two flawed people and not directly with the perfect God. However, it’s nevertheless a binding contract before God.
So back to funerals. The Requiem Mass is part of the sacrament of the Eucharist, the mass for the dead and the mass for the living. Christ’s salvic sacrifice is at the centre, hence guidance against undue emphasis on eulogies for the deceased. When the bereaved choose a ceremony without the Eucharist, the liturgy, though not referred to as a sacrament, nonetheless offers the same message of Easter hope, and commends the deceased to God. Grace can be bestowed through prayer, not just through the sacraments. There is also always the option to schedule a memorial mass at a later date.
Thanks for the clarification, Father. But one last question: we may recall our confirmation or marriage ceremonies but not our baptism or last rites. Although we clearly don’t actively participate in our own funerals, do you think we witness them? The answer: God only knows.