30 October 2008

A 'Good' Funeral

A “Good” Funeral
Negros Times 29-30 October 2008

The writer edits www.misyononline.com and has a blog at www.bangortobobbio.blogspot.com . You may contact him at undertheacacia@gmail.com

“As funerals go, it was a good one”. So spoke my former seminary rector, Fr. Joseph Flynn, after the funeral in Ireland in June 1997 of Fr. Frank Baragry who had spent almost 40 years in Mindanao. Father Baragry, whose older brother Father Dan had been working in the Philippines since 1955, was only 64. So there was a great sense of grief and loss.

So what made it a “good” funeral?

One unusual aspect was the large number of Filipinos present. They included Columban lay missionaries, religious sisters assigned to Ireland, some Filipinos married there and quite a few Columban priests home from the Philippines on vacation during the Irish summer. From among these a choir was formed that sang hymns in Cebuano.

This certainly helped to make the occasion a “good” funeral. But at the heart of the matter was a strong Catholic Christian faith. Because our Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead, we can hope for the same. For centuries in every parish in the Philippines children have been proclaiming the Resurrection on Easter Sunday morning at the Salubong/Encuentro/Pagsugat as our Mother Mary, her statue carried by women, casts aside her mourning cloak when she meets her Risen son, his statue carried by men. Young girls dressed in white scatter petals of flowers as they sing “Resurrexit sicut dixit, Alleluia, alleluia”, “He has risen as he said, Alleluia, alleluia”.

And for centuries Filipinos have been living that same faith as they grieve for those who have died. Filipino wakes, like Irish ones, are not only mournful occasions but joyful ones too as people share stories about the deceased, as they laugh and cry at the same time. Only once have I experienced the full novena for the dead in the Philippines. A young man of 25 whose family was very close to me died after a motorcycle accident one Saturday morning. I had greeted him after Mass just a few hours before and anointed him after returning from a barrio fiesta when he was on the point of death.

I could see that the novena is a wonderful mixture of faith and basic humanity. In this particular case the whole town was in mourning. Jimmy was the second child and the eldest son in a family of six who had lost their father in an accident when the eldest was only 12 and the youngest less than a year. Jimmy was like a father to the rest. During the novena the people helped the family come to terms with their grief by their presence and by their prayers. The funeral Mass was the most difficult I have ever celebrated but I found my faith deepened when Jimmy’s mother, Ponying, offered him to God as he was being buried.

In Ireland we don’t have a novena for the dead and funerals take place within two or three days. People visit the house, where the wake usually takes place, though funeral parlors are not unknown in modern Ireland. Neighbors bring in sandwiches and cakes and make endless pots of tea and coffee for the visitors. The remains are brought to the church the evening before burial for what is called “the removal”. This is a Service of the Word led by the priest and takes place at 5:30 or 6 PM so that people can attend on their way home from work. Many who cannot attend the funeral the following day come to that service. The funeral Mass usually takes place the following morning and after the burial there is usually a meal.

One Irish practice that Filipinos find very strange is that the remains are left alone in the locked church overnight after the “removal”.

That wasn’t the case the night before Father Baragry was buried, as his remains were in the chapel of what was once a seminary with nearly 200 students but that now has none. And I know that some of the Filipinos kept vigil through the night before his burial.

But at the heart of it all, for Filipinos and for the Irish, especially in the past when the Catholic faith was much stronger in Ireland than it is now, is our hope in the Resurrection. Death is not the end, but the entrance to eternal life. And there is a healthy awareness of our unworthiness and of the need to pray for the dead, of the need for purification. A comparison I find useful is the help persons need before their wedding. They want to look their best. They wouldn’t go to the church in their working clothes or without taking a shower. Yet they feel a great sense of excitement while still preparing.

My understanding of purgatory is something like that: the soul knows the joy of having been saved but also knows that it is not yet ready to face God. It’s not a question of punishment but rather of the need to prepare more. There’s a sense of hiya, of “shame” in the Philippine sense. And the dead who are preparing to come into God’s presence are truly helped by our prayers just as a bride and groom preparing for their wedding are helped by those taking care of the many details that go with it.

Of course, what is most important of all when it comes to a wedding is preparing for marriage. A wedding is only for a day while marriage is for life. And our living faith in Jesus Christ in our daily lives is, with God’s grace and the prayers of our friends, the best preparation not only for death but for eternal life.

As we remember the dead this coming weekend, may we pray for the grace for our families and friends of a “good” funeral when our time comes.


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