I love being a priest, so pretty much every day I enjoy what I have to do.
I love Sundays; I love visiting our parish school during the week; I love visiting the sick in the hospital or at home.
But the best days are days when I bury the dead. I love funerals above all my other duties for five reasons.
First, there is the fact that at a funeral there is no danger that the primary beneficiary of my ministry will misunderstand what I am doing. (The other people might, but, c’est la vie.) Whenever I undertake to help the souls of the living, I always have to contend with the serious danger that they will misunderstand what I am trying to say or do. Our human limitations get in the way of perfectly clear communication. I might think I am being loving by saying or doing something, but the audience might not perceive the love.
On the other hand, when the person I am dealing with is dead, I can communicate with him or her very intimately, with no fear that he or she will misunderstand. All the impediments to effective communication between us are removed; we can communicate soul to soul. Very few words are needed.
I can express my ardent desire that the deceased person will get to heaven just by willing it, by doing the sacred funeral rites for this reason. I know that the person will be aware of my desire, more aware, probably, then even I am. I don’t have to say anything other than the prayers which the book requires me to say, or do anything other than what the book tells me to do.
Which brings me to the second consolation of doing a funeral: the rites themselves.
People probably tend to think of a wedding as the most beautiful visible expression of love that can be seen in front of the altar at church, but I disagree.
I think a funeral is the most beautiful visible expression of love.
What could be more loving than for the grieving people to carry the body of their dead loved one to the foot of the altar and then kneel down and pray for the repose of his or her soul?
As a priest, the purest gesture of love for another human being that I know how to make is to incense the casket holding the dead body of one of my brothers or sisters in the Lord.
If you, dear reader, have any thought of asking your survivors to have you cremated, put the thought out of your mind right now.
Having your body brought to church for a proper funeral and then carried to the grave by people who love you is worth ten times what it costs.
If you are reading this and think that someday you might be at Father White’s funeral, please note the following (I have this written down in my last will and testament, but I’ll mention it here, too):
I want the priest who says my funeral Mass to wear black vestments, and I want him to incense my casket until everyone in the church has an asthma attack.
A third delightful thing about funerals is that, generally speaking, people in the funeral-home business are as likable a group of people as you are ever going to meet. They are humble, generous-hearted, God-fearing, down-to-earth, attentive to their duties, and thoughtful.
Fourth, the reality of death is extremely comforting for a priest.
Accepting a vocation to the priesthood means letting go of most of the short-term goals that most men seek to attain—professional success, family happiness, material prosperity, etc. Priests have to live for the final goal only: getting to heaven. Burying the dead reminds a priest that he has not made a dumb choice in giving up on worldly goals.
In fact, I have made the smartest choice, and the choice I have made helps other people deal with the most basic of all realities: eventually we all die, and we leave everything behind. This gives the priest a great deal of encouragement in the faith.
A priest is a man who lives by faith in a unique way; he is “the guardian of the faith,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas. When someone dies, suddenly God becomes very real to everyone involved, even if they are not “churchy” (i.e., they never go to church). The role of a priest in the face of death is beautifully clear: Bear witness to the faith, to the truth about God and the soul. There is no question that this is what everyone is dying to hear at the moment. (No pun intended.)
In other words, at a funeral, everyone comes to “my world,” and all of a sudden, everyone wants to hear what I have to say. I am not a crazy idiot for becoming a priest; I am actually rather ahead of the curve.
Which brings me to the fifth reason why I love funerals: It is a time when many excellent confessions take place.
Whenever I can, I go to the funeral home for the wake and set up shop in a little parlor to hear confessions. I would be happy to sit in funeral home hearing confessions at wakes every day for the rest of my life.
Someday we will all rise from the dead. Cemeteries will be full of people standing up.
The ancient custom is for lay people to be buried so that when they stand up, they will be facing east to see Christ coming in glory—hopefully it will not be a fearsome sight for any of us. Priests are to be buried so that when we stand up, we will see the people in front of us. You lay people will be looking at Christ AND us priests, believe it or not! (I guess the wicked priests will be seared through by the glory of Christ shining behind them. May I not be one of those, Lord, please! May I shine with the glory of your Light!) Hopefully, when I look out after standing up, all the people I buried will smile at me.
In the meantime, please pray for me if you can, dear departed souls! (You living people, please pray for me, too. Thank you.)