From a reader…
I was wondering on how the practice of having viewings before a funeral Mass in Church began? It seems that this practice is becoming more and more common. It seems to me that church viewings are inappropriate because of all of the talking and carrying-on by the “mourners” which is disrespectful to the Blessed Sacrament and many do not even realize that they are in Church and in the presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Can anything be done about this? Should the Blessed Sacrament be removed if a family wishes to have their loved one’s viewing/wake in Church prior to the funeral Mass?
Ah, the ever-evolving and changing practices of bereavement and burial…
In the not-too-distant past, the body of the deceased was laid out in the front parlor of the family home and family and friends would visit, pay their respects, and keep vigil over the lamented loved one. They would “wake” their loved one. The morning of the funeral, the carriage would pull up, led by horses with black plumes, and the corpse would be carried to the parish church, followed by a train of mourners. After the Requiem Mass, the deceased would be carried by the pall bearers out back to the parish cemetery and lovingly put to rest, and the mourners would either return to the home or down to the parish basement for a light luncheon and reminiscence.
Then funeral homes arrived on the scene. Many funeral homes do a marvelous job of assisting families at a very difficult point in time. But we can’t forget, funeral homes are businesses. They have an interest in maximizing profits. Funeral homes often encourage family members to forgo churches altogether, and to have the funeral right there in the mortuary, with a priest or deacon coming in to lead a service without the Holy Mass. Others want to bring the deceased to the church as quickly as possible, thus to open up one of the chapels in the funeral home for another paying customer. Again, without the intention to disparage each and every funeral home and their often invaluable services, but some of the developments in burial and bereavement practices seem like they have less and less to do with the corporal work of mercy which is burying the dead.
If the body must be brought to the church before the funeral Mass, it really should be placed somewhere apart from the sanctuary. If there’s a chapel towards the entrance of the church, that would be ideal. Even in the baptistery, it might make some sense (throughout the funeral Mass, much mention is made of the ties between baptism and death). Even there, in a chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is not present, people should be assisted to remember that they are in a church: maintain a respectful attitude, quiet voices, and children should not be allowed to run around helter-skelter.
If the deceased is in the main body of the church, where the Blessed Sacrament is present, all the more should people be encouraged to be respectful. I don’t think the Blessed Sacrament should be removed: it’s not the Blessed Sacrament which is in the wrong place here!
How can we instill in people, including non-Catholics who may be attending and who know little about our sense of the sacred, a sense of quiet, reflective awe whilst in the home of the Lord of Life? That’s a good question. Signs in the vestible are useful, as are ushers willing to remind people – politely – of quiet and decorum, a schola chanting Gregorian Chant, Latin psalms, for the deceased while the visitation takes place….
Let’s not forget the good example of well-mannered, well-catechized Catholics.