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Memento mori: I’m planning my funeral, what about you?


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Robert Kurland - published on 11/19/17

I attend a lot of funerals, and as the final sending away hymn is played, my own mortality comes to mind.

This is no light-hearted effort to deal with the renewed interest in “memento mori” thanks to Sister Theresa Aletheia’s recent writings and social media threads. If I were not confident in the teaching of our Church that we will rise with Christ, I would not be able to write this.

More and more, in November, I have been acknowledging the dead with prayer and in ceremony. I try to heed the advice of a Dominican priest from Nigeria who urged his congregation to follow the practice of his native village and attend all funerals, even though they might have not known the deceased well. He called it a matter of respect for the dead, and of course, “How can you expect people to attend your funeral if you don’t attend theirs?

At almost all the funerals I have attended recently, the deceased is younger than I am (87.5 or 7/8 of a century). This does not give me cause for schadenfreude. Rather, as the final sending away hymn is played my own mortality comes to mind. What should my own funeral be like? What should I choose for hymns and readings, to let people know who I was and to give family and friends comfort?

So, here I put forward my funeral plans, and I invite praise, criticism and suggestions, even if I think things are pretty much settled. Your thoughts might end up being worth sharing with your own friends and family in a conversation worth having.

First question: Cremation or embalming?

The Code of Canon Law (1176,#3)  says: “the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.”

Well, I believe that if God can resurrect us from a pile of bones, he can resurrect us from ashes, and cremation is certainly less expensive than embalming. As a scientist, I do have some misgivings about this: DNA has been extracted from Neanderthal bones, and if God uses DNA as His template for resurrection, I wouldn’t want to be cremated. Or is this being too mundane? God isn’t limited by molecular biology. Hmmm … this might take more thought.

But if I am embalmed and there is an open coffin, I want to be wearing my scarlet Ph.D. cap and gown (Harvard, 1956).

Second question: Which priests will celebrate my funeral Mass? I am on good terms with all the priests that have served as pastors at our church. With some I have been more intimate, and since they know more about me, these would be the ones I would ask (or rather have my family ask) to serve. But I do know this particular priest will bring joy and hope to the ceremony.

If you feel like your priest doesn’t know you well enough to talk meaningfully about you, well now, this might be the time to consider how to change that reality.

Third question: Which hymns?

Processional:Amazing Grace,” the story of my journey to faith.

Offertory:Jerusalem, My Happy Home,” this will be, I pray, my particular judgment; I’ll ask the clarinetist in our instrumental group to do a solo verse of this.

Communion:”Bread of Angels,” for the congregation, and “King of Glory, King of Peace,” again, about  my faith.

Recessional,“Come My Way, My Truth, My Life”; watch the linked video and you’ll see why.

The hymns I’ve chosen are not ones I’ve heard at funerals I’ve attended recently, but they move me and somehow bring me closer to God. At times I play them on my bowed psaltery.

Fourth question: Which readings?

First Reading (Old Testament): 1 Kings 19:11-13 (KJV) — how God speaks to us.

Psalm: Psalm 19A (18, Douay-Rheims) — why science confirms my faith.

Second Reading (New Testament): 1 Corinthians 15:1-24 — my hope in Jesus Christ as Savior.

Gospel:John 6 (Bread of Life Discourse) — and again, my hope in Jesus Christ.

Fifth question: Eulogy? 

I’ll let the family work this out..

Finally, I want to emphasize that this planning exercise is something that I’ve been thinking about throughout this month, after attending four funerals of friends and acquaintances, and I’m happy that it’s now a matter of public record. I want those who attend my funeral to know why and what I believed, and I want them to gain hope for themselves—that’s the object of a Catholic funeral, a celebration of our faith that we will live with Jesus Christ.

And may I recommend to you the practice, whenever you have a free day, and the circumstance arises, of attending a funeral at your parish, even if the deceased is a stranger. Memento mori, indeed.

Read more:
Remember your death: A memento mori playlist

Read more:
Where Are the Thin Places?

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