Bishop Denis Nulty, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, has published a pastoral letter on funerals and funeral ministry entitled When a Loved One Dies. This pastoral is the fruit of a collective conversation that has taken place right across the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin over the past two years. Bishop Nulty chose the month of November, the time of year in which we remember and pray for our deceased loved ones, for its publication.
Introducing the pastoral letter, Bishop Nulty said, “The death of a loved one, even when it is expected, always brings with it the great sadness of parting. Families are so often left with a tremendous sense of shock and loss as well as deep feelings of personal grief. Into this grief the Church carries, through its prayers and actions, the consolation and comfort of its faith. The Church reaches out to all those who grieve with a message of hope. For we believe in the resurrection and, therefore, we believe that death is not the end. So while the pain of mourning cannot be taken away, our faith enables us to pray in a spirit of hope for a loved one who is returning to God and to life everlasting.”
Bishop Nulty goes on to explain the process of consultation in the diocese, saying, “Many of you will be aware that for the last two years, we have had on-going discussions within the diocese about the celebration of funerals in our parishes. Alongside an extensive parish survey, on a number of occasions I have met with funeral directors, parish staff, clergy, funeral ministry teams, those recently bereaved as well as many parish volunteers. Together we have explored how best to celebrate the funeral rites, our acts of public worship, in the circumstances of people’s lives today. I have listened very closely to what people have said and am very grateful to all who shared in these conversations and for the insights they brought to our exploration.”
Bishop Nulty said that one immediate response to these conversations across the diocese was the creation and distribution of three prayer cards for use in the home and funeral home to help support families. These were issued in the Spring and have been very warmly received in parishes.
Writing in When a Loved One Dies Bishop Nulty highlights the long tradition of celebrating funerals well in Ireland, and he says that the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin is no exception to this tradition. Bishop Nulty says, “In order to support and encourage the continued worthy and dignified celebration of funerals into the future, my next step as bishop is to address particular funeral practices.”
Bishop Nulty said that during the diocesan wide consultation process, people asked time and again for clarity in regard to the following practices:
- Words of Remembrance at a Funeral
- Presentation of Personal Mementoes
- The Choice of Music
Bishop Nulty said, “I am happy to offer such clarity in this letter. In doing so I am keenly aware of the sensitive ministry that happens every day in parishes as families prepare to celebrate the funeral of a loved one. It is in this pastoral ministry that the clarity I outline will be exercised. I firmly believe that the funeral rites of the Church, celebrated well in the local community, bring the soothing balm of Christ’s comfort and hope at a time of devastating loss.”
Addressing the practice of offering words of remembrance, Bishop Nulty said, “The eulogy does not form any part of the official funeral rites of the Church. In recent years a practice has emerged of a family member speaking publicly in remembrance of the deceased at some stage during the funeral rites. I want families to be aware that this is something that no family should ever feel they have to do. If a family, however, wishes to share words of remembrance, it will be helpful for them to be sensitive to the appropriateness or otherwise of what is said in a public and prayer context.
Speaking about the presentation of personal mementoes, Bishop Nulty said, “Across our parishes there is a new and growing custom of personal symbols or mementoes also being presented. These mementoes reveal aspects of the life of the deceased, their life, work, interests, faith, etc. They are different to the Christian symbols placed on the coffin and to the gifts of bread and wine that are presented during the Mass for transformation into the Body and Blood of Christ. Because this is not part of the official rites of the Church, a family should not feel that mementoes have to be presented. However, if a family wish to do so, the mementoes are placed on a suitably prepared table of remembrance located near the coffin or within the sanctuary, rather than on the coffin or on the altar. The chosen mementoes are appropriate and respectful to the church setting. The mementoes are presented at the beginning of the Mass or Reception of the Body, and not at the preparation of the altar.”
Addressing the choice of music for a funeral Mass, Bishop Nulty said, “Music is a central element of Catholic worship. We give thanks and praise to God through our music and it reveals truths of our faith. Instrumental music can express both our human emotions before God and God’s healing presence to us in a way that no other medium can. The music we sing in our acts of worship support our prayer in that very moment. Because of this, music selections need always to serve and enhance that prayer and not lead us away from worship of God. Sometimes families will ask for a favourite song of the deceased to be included during the Funeral. It has happened on occasion that the lyrics to a song has been opposite to our beliefs or inappropriate to Christian worship. To assist families in making their choices of music I am asking that families agree all music choices with the priest celebrant ahead of time. The family can do this directly with the priest or they can ask the person leading the music, a member of the parish staff or a member of the funeral ministry team where one exists, to check and agree the music with the priest. If a secular song is agreed that it be sung during the sympathising at the evening removal, as the coffin leaves the church, at the conclusion of the prayer at the crematorium or at the graveside.
Bishop Nulty also addresses cremation in his pastoral letter, a practice which he said, is still relatively small in the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin. Bishop Nulty said, “As stated in the recent Instruction from Rome, cremation is a valid and acceptable practice in the Catholic Church, provided it is not being chosen for reasons in opposition to our faith. When cremation is chosen, it will as a general rule take place after the funeral Mass. The cremated remains are shown the same respect as the body of a Christian; the vessel they are contained in, as well as how this vessel is treated, demonstrates respect and reverence for the sacredness of this person whom we now commend to the care of God. As a diocese we will continue to work with funeral directors and crematoriums to support families who choose cremation for their loved one.”
Bishop Nulty has also expressed his hope that parishes might continue to develop parish funeral ministry groups. A small number of parishes in the diocese already have a group of trained lay people who serve as part of a funeral ministry team. These people work with the parish clergy in assisting families to prepare and celebrate the funeral rites. Bishop Nulty said he is delighted that training for new parish funeral ministry teams is currently underway with half a dozen parishes participating in this particular round of formation. “In the coming years these volunteers will play an essential role in continuing the rich tradition of the Church’s ministry to the bereaved”, Bishop Nulty said.
Concluding his pastoral letter Bishop Nulty said, “My prayer is that this pastoral letter will encourage those who are accompanying loved ones nearing death. My hope is that this pastoral will bring consistency and clarity to our practice around funerals. My aim is that this pastoral will become a resource reference for that most tender moment, when we are planning the funeral of someone we love. I thank the many people in Kildare & Leighlin who have engaged in this conversation over the past two years and I trust that those gatherings and meetings have found some expression in this pastoral letter.”
Copies of When a Loved One Dies have been made available to parishes this week and it is hoped that parishioners will take time to read and reflect on its contents. The pastoral letter is available to download from here.