I think most Christians have forgotten the controversies that gave rise to Protestantism, when it first started. One of the problems had to do with prayers for the dead. The Protestant thinking went like this: since sometimes Church authority has encouraged people to pray and make sacrifices for the dead in a way that seems un-Christian–like asking for money for indulgences–therefore it’s best not to pray for the dead at all.
That controversy has passed into the mists of history. Prohibiting prayers for the dead clearly runs contrary to one of the deepest inclinations of the Christian spirit. But a deeper question, which lay underneath the controversy, still has to be faced, now more than ever: What exactly is the point of a Christian funeral?
#1. Reason numero uno: We believe in the resurrection of the body. The Lord Jesus rose on the third day, in the body with which He had made His earthly pilgrimage, formed originally in the womb of the Virgin. Christ ascended into heaven bodily, flesh of our flesh. And He promised to come again, at which time all the dead will rise from their graves, just like He rose from His.
This is the Christian faith.
During the 20the century, some Christians decided to get fashionable and try to interpret the resurrection of the body, which we confess in our ancient Creed, in a ‘spiritual’ or ‘figurative’ sense. But, as St. Paul put it: that would make us the most pitiable of men. We believe in the promises of Christ more than we believe our own eyes—at least we should believe Christ’s promises more. The dead will rise. We rest in the earth after our bodily death, but not forever.
We have no choice, then, but to treat the bodies of our deceased loved ones with the most loving reverence. This flesh will course with life again. Arbitrarily to destroy the remains of our beloved dead—which is what pagans do—Christians do not do that. Certain things distinguish Christians from pagans—like loving the poor more than money, like having joy in the midst of suffering—and this one: We lavish love upon the bodies of our dead.
Reason #2 why we celebrate Christian funerals: Kindness obliges us to make a very precise assumption regarding everyone who dies. When we get to heaven, please God, we may find that the assumption wasn’t always true, but that’s not the point.
The assumption is this: We assume that every dead person—except the people the popes have canonized—we assume that everyone else is in purgatory. We can help people in purgatory get to heaven by praying and offering sacrifices for them.
Obviously, we don’t assume any particular person has gone to hell. That would not be nice. We don’t assume any particular person has gone straight to heaven, because that would not be nice, either. If we assumed someone were in heaven, then we would have no reason to pray and offer sacrifices for him or her. What if we were wrong? What if someone we assumed to be in heaven was actually in purgatory—needing our prayers, but not getting them? Not nice at all.
#3. Third reason why we celebrate Christian funerals: When people we love die, we need Christ more than ever. We need to hear the Word of God, the promise of eternal life. We need to put our faith in the Gospel, as if for the first time. We need to pray to our heavenly Father for strength and consolation. And we need to encounter the Lord, at the altar of His perfect sacrifice, where He wipes away sin and makes all things new.
No one knows when Christians first started having Masses said for their deceased loved ones. We have been doing it for a long, long time. It is a great privilege for me to carry all the love and hopes that people have for the eternal happiness of someone they have lost—to carry all that to the altar and unite it with the offering of the Host and the chalice.
Do we pilgrims here on earth understand exactly how a Mass offered for the repose of a soul helps that person advance through purgatory toward heaven? No, we do not understand how. But can we reasonably doubt that it’s true? Can we reasonably doubt that the right thing for us to do is: to offer Masses for our beloved dead? Why would we ever neglect it?
#4. Last, but by no means least, reason why we celebrate Christian funerals: We need to lay our departed loved ones to rest. A Christian funeral involves one journey, with an important stop on the way. We bring the body to church and celebrate Mass with the one we love for the last time. Then we go to a place consecrated for the burial of the dead. A Christian cemetery serves a particular purpose: a place set aside for prayer, where our loved ones can rest until the last day. This is where we, and everyone else who knew and loved this person, can come to visit and pray, never forgetting, always looking forward to the great re-union to come.
I of course do not have much money. But if anyone ever has occasion to think: We can’t have a Christian funeral, because it’s too expensive–just tell me, and I will pay the funeral director myself. [This offer available only in Franklin and Henry counties, VA.] A lot of things break my heart, but none more than Christian burial getting neglected because of money. I will gladly spend all my meager savings on paupers’ funerals. Then when I’m dead, and don’t have a penny to my name, you will have to pay for my funeral. I want solemn dirges and enough incense to choke an elephant.
Each year holy mother Church gives us All Souls Day to pray for all our beloved dead. Let’s offer the holy sacrifice for them and entrust them to the mercy of Christ. We will see them again. And they will thank us then, for praying for them.