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Last Respects: Emerging Trends in Catholic Funerals
By Marion Amberg
As Catholics ponder the last things, it's good to consider funeral arrangements as well.


Dust to Dust
Lifting the Ban
Works of Mercy
Grave Responsibilities
Ritual Rewards
Cry Aloud to God
Trappist Monks Craft Caskets

Photo by Don Nesbitt

I leaned against the old church doors and studied the people ascending the steps. Relatives, childhood friends, farm neighbors: the salt of the Minnesota prairie. Today was my father’s funeral and hearts were heavy. Together, we mourned his physical separation from us and the fact that we’d no longer see his faith in action. We also gave thanks for Dad’s new life.

A new Church attitude makes all the difference! Thirty years ago, any thoughts of praise succumbed to the somber tone of the Requiem Mass and black vestments. Today’s Mass of Christian Burial is celebrated mainly in white vestments and inspires hope eternal, the dark of death symbolically swallowed up in the lighted paschal candle.

While I still grieve for my father, I find solace in knowing we are forever united in the communion of the saints: he on that side of the veil, I on this.

The Mass is only one of many changes in Catholic funerals. Simple wooden caskets are making a comeback. With new burial options, we can choose how we’ll await the resurrection. More deceased are being waked in churches, and many parishes now offer bereavement ministry to families at the hour of death. Evening funeral Masses are allowing more of the working population to pay their last respects. Eulogies are in—and out—depending on the diocese and parish.

Dust to Dust

The biggest change in Catholic funerals is cremation. Just how many Catholics are choosing cremation is a guess: Many dioceses aren’t yet tracking the trend. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests the percentage of Catholic cremation is somewhat lower than the national average.

According to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), 27 percent of Americans who died in 2001 were cremated. CANA is projecting a 37-percent cremation rate by 2010 and 44 percent by 2025. That compares with 10 percent in 1980.

Geographically, the percentage of Catholic cremations varies widely and is closely tied to state trends. Rates are highest in the far western states but substantially lower in the South, where more faithful seem to reverence the traditional funeral and burial.

In Alabama, which has the nation’s lowest cremation rate (five percent in 2001), the Mobile Archdiocese reports its cremations are three percent or less. In New Orleans, whose centuries-old cemeteries are tourist attractions, cremations also remain low.

“Our above-ground tombs are family histories, with several generations buried in one location,” explains Michael D. Boudreaux, director of the New Orleans archdiocesan cemeteries. “We are respectful of our past and our future.”

Cremations are sharply higher in retirement states and in more transient urban areas. “In Greater Seattle, about 40 to 45 percent of Catholics are choosing cremation,” estimates Richard P. Peterson, director of the Seattle archdiocesan cemeteries. That compares with Washington State’s 59-percent cremation rate in 2001.

“It’s rare for a person to be born and die here,” says Peterson. “We don’t have deep roots or the traditional family cemeteries like the Midwest or the East.”

Contrary to public opinion, cost is not always the main reason for choosing cremation. In Greater Seattle, where the more affluent and highly educated Catholics are opting for cremation, ease of body disposition and ecology are cited as primary concerns.

Lifting the Ban

Long forbidden by the Church, cremation was allowed in 1963. When cremation was chosen, it became standard practice to cremate the body after the funeral Mass. When the body was cremated immediately after death (direct cremation), a memorial Mass was held instead.

In 1997 the rules were relaxed even more: American bishops received an indult that permitted the presence of cremated remains at the funeral Mass. (Canadian bishops were granted a similar indult in 1985.) A random survey by this writer suggests about 30 percent of cremations today occur before the funeral.

While cremation is becoming more accepted among U.S. Catholics, the Archdiocese of Vancouver, British Columbia, has rescinded its cremation indult. The archdiocesan Web site states, “[T]he presence of the human body better expresses the values that the Church affirms in its rites.” It was the body that was baptized, filled with the Holy Spirit and did the work of the Father on earth.

“The indult was never intended to be automatic,” explains Monsignor Nunzio J. Defoe, chairman of Gardens of Gethsemani cemetery in Surrey, British Columbia. “There are strings attached. Certain conditions must be met.”

In the Vancouver Archdiocese, cremated remains are permitted at the funeral Mass only under extraordinary circumstances, such as when the person died in a distant place and was cremated to facilitate transportation.

Works of Mercy

Will American bishops follow suit and rescind the cremation indult here? That remains to be seen, but dioceses in both countries are beginning to think “outside the box” in ministering to the bereaved.

To help low-income families, the Denver Archdiocese in 1981 opened its own mortuary; a nonprofit, diocesan-run mortuary for the Phoenix Diocese is planned for 2005. During the 1980s, Father Eloi Arsenault and the Knights of Columbus opened the first cooperative mortuary in the Province of Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Such an arrangement can save parishioners about $1,500 to $2,000 on funeral costs, says Father Arsenault, adding that dozens of cooperative mortuaries now exist in Canada’s eastern provinces, some of them organized with the help of the Church.

The Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas, which inherited a crematory as part of a cemetery purchase in 1981, is now opening a second one. Savings to parishioners are substantial, reports Albert Sanchez, director. Canada’s first diocesan-run crematory recently opened in the Diocese of Hamilton, Ontario.

Once the first call at death, the Church is now the last, lament many parishes. In a proactive move, St. Aloysius Church in Spokane, Washington, hired Sherry Fischer as the parish’s on-call funeral coordinator.

“When somebody gets married, they have a year to plan for it,” says Fischer, a former hospital chaplain. “When somebody dies, they have five days.”

Fischer advises families on consumer rights and burial decisions (traditional vs. cremation), and helps them to plan a funeral that, within the context of Church rites, reflects the deceased.

Bereavement ministry isn’t solely for survivors; it also consoles and assists the dying in planning their last rites. A few weeks before my father died, he, my sister and his pastor met to discuss his funeral. Dad had been a devout Catholic all his life and wanted the funeral to reflect his faith.

“I was comforted by the priest’s willingness to work with us and respect Dad’s final request,” says my sister, Rita Waldref. “We chose Scripture readings and music that spoke of Dad, his faith-walk and his family.” As Dad would have liked, the funeral Mass was a community and family celebration.

“I knew we had faithfully honored our father when St. Francis of Assisi unified the Mass,” continues Rita. “Without consulting one another, our mother selected the Prayer of St. Francis for the memorial card, I chose the Prayer of St. Francis for the Communion hymn and, when a sister wrote the words of remembrance, she called Dad another St. Francis.”

Grave Responsibilities

Burials in Catholic cemeteries are declining in some areas and their directors are concerned. Church cemeteries are more than markers and crosses, they say. They are also a public witness of faith in the coming resurrection.

In the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, about 45 to 50 percent of Catholics are being buried in Catholic cemeteries, estimates John Cherek, director of the archdiocesan-run cemeteries. That number compares with 75 to 80 percent in 1960.

Where have all the Catholics gone? To other cemeteries, for one thing: The Vatican no longer mandates that Catholics be buried in a Church cemetery. Another reason is cultural practices that suggest burial of the remains is not necessary.

“Scattering the remains or keeping them at home are not accepted practices of the Catholic Church,” says Cherek. “When I ask people if they would keep a dead body at home, they are appalled at the idea. The cremated remains are still the body but in another form and deserve the respect accorded the corporeal body.”

Additionally, scattering the remains may have psychological repercussions. The bereaved often discover too late they have no place to visit and remember their loved ones.

Hoping to encourage the reverent disposition of cremated remains, cemeteries are offering more burial options, including the boulder-tomb. A hole is bored into a large granite rock, the urn inserted and the hole sealed with an inscribed memorial plate.

Cremated remains may also be interred in a lawn crypt, an urn garden or a columbarium (an arrangement of niches in either a mausoleum or an outdoor stand-alone structure).

In Roswell, New Mexico, where there is no Catholic cemetery, St. Peter Church is erecting a marble columbarium in its courtyard. The unit will have 64 niches, costing about $300 each.

Some souls are making the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles their final destination. The cathedral’s crypt mausoleum contains nearly 4,800 cremation niches (starting at $5,000) and 1,275 crypts for full-body burial (starting at $80,000). Proceeds are helping to fund the cathedral’s maintenance endowment.

With some family members choosing traditional burial and others cremation, many cemeteries are allowing a combination grave. The cremated remains of my father are buried in the gravesite of his parents and brother in a small parish cemetery on the Minnesota prairie. On New York’s Long Island, where multi-depth burials are standard practice, diocesan cemeteries now permit three cremated remains and three full-body burials in one grave.

Ritual Rewards

To eulogize or not, that is the question. In January 2003 Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, New Jersey, created a national stir when he issued a decree banning eulogies, or words of remembrance, during funeral Masses in his archdiocese.

“Any messages delivered by family members or friends shall be limited to the visitation or the graveside service and shall be ordinarily limited to a single person,” the archbishop stated.

While eulogies have been a common practice in many faiths, they only became a Catholic trend when the revised Order of Christian Funerals (1989) allowed for a brief “remembrance of the deceased before the final commendation” by a family member or friend.

Concerned about the content of eulogies or remembrances (one man toasted his drinking buddy) and their length (some lasted nearly as long as the Mass itself), other dioceses began fine-tuning their guidelines. In some areas, words of remembrance are given before the funeral Mass or during the funeral luncheon.

Keeping vigil over the deceased has been a long Church tradition. Once held in private homes and then in funeral homes, more vigils or wakes are now happening in a parish setting. New churches are being designed with that purpose in mind and, in rural churches, vigils are frequently held in the parish hall.

Displaying photos of the deceased at wakes is another recent trend. Doing so inspires memories and storytelling, an important healing factor in the grieving process. Wakes are getting shorter as well; many people have moved away from their roots and have less time to gather.

Even the legendary Irish wakes are getting shorter. On the East Coast where a good Irish wake often lasted three days (because Christ spent three days in the tomb, lore has it), the norm is now one or two days.

In many Hispanic regions, the traditional wake remains a solemn ritual of death. At St. John the Baptist Church in Roswell, New Mexico, the body is brought to church the night before the funeral Mass. The rosary is recited and prayers said. Some families remain all night with the body.

“We don’t shy away from death,” says Father Juan Montoya, O.F.M., pastor, who conducts over 70 funerals annually in his congregation of more than 2,000 families. Mementos of the departed are placed inside the casket, and the family recites aloud the prayer of commendation.

In commemoration of its centennial in 2003, the parish dedicated a memorial wall that lists the names of its 3,500 dead. Whenever the faithful gather for Mass, the wall is a poignant reminder that death is inevitable and a gateway into eternal life.

“Death is the real birthday,” says Father Montoya. It’s “a birth that will last forever.”      

A sad but growing trend in Catholic funerals is the omitting or minimizing of Church rites. Adult children estranged from the faith may forgo the funeral Mass when their parents die. Rather than calling a priest when a Catholic dies in some retirement centers, the staff conducts a memorial service on-site. Some survivors believe abbreviating the last rites will abbreviate their grief.

These trends are unfortunate, writes Bishop James Garland of Marquette, Michigan, in a 2001 pastoral letter on Christian funerals. “This diminishes prayer for the dead and removes the opportunity to give witness to faith. It deprives those remaining of the consolation and emotional relief that the funeral rites offer.”

In his letter, entitled To Pray for the Living and the Dead, Bishop Garland describes three parts—or spiritual moments—in the Order of Christian Funerals: the vigil or wake, the funeral Mass and the rites of committal. During the vigil, Scripture readings, hymns, prayers and storytelling are a balm to grieving spirits.

“With the special time afforded for the sharing of stories and memories from the life of the deceased,” Bishop Garland says, “the vigil can be a good beginning for the long process of coming to terms with life now that the deceased person is gone.”

The focus of the Catholic funeral is the Mass, the paschal mystery of Christ’s saving death and resurrection. The eucharistic celebration symbolizes the deceased’s journey from life to death to everlasting life and, for survivors, from sorrow to life without their loved one.

The last ritual in the Catholic funeral is the rite of committal. “Out of respect for the deceased, we commit the body to the earth from which it came,” says Bishop Garland, “with the sure and certain hope that the dead will rise again and we shall be reunited with them in heaven.”

Bishop Garland’s pastoral letter can be read in its entirety at


The phone never stops ringing at Trappist Caskets near Dubuque, Iowa. Another soul has gone to meet his or her maker.

Families seem to be consoled by the idea of burying their loved one in a wooden casket handcrafted by monks, says Abbot Brendan Freeman of New Melleray Abbey. “Our caskets inspire a simple, spiritual approach to death and the resurrection.”

The caskets (rectangular) and coffins (wider at the shoulders and tapered at the feet) are made of black walnut, pine and oak. Prices range from $695 for a simple pine box to $1,795 for a premium black walnut casket. Cremation urns begin at $245.

Casket-making is a new occupation at the 155-year-old abbey. Struggling to make ends meet on the monastery’s 3,800-acre farm, the monks looked to the next life for help in this one. They bought a cottage casket business from Sam Mulgrew, a local entrepreneur, and hired him as their general manager.

While Trappist Caskets was never intended to be high-volume, sales are climbing. The abbey sold 190 caskets and coffins in 2001 (the first full year of production) and over 700 in 2003. Sales for 2004 are expected to top 1,000 units.

“Our caskets have soul, they have personality,” explains Mulgrew. “Baby boomers especially are turning away from the sterile, ostentatious caskets.”

If the caskets seem peaceful, perhaps it’s because some of the wood comes from the abbey’s 1,400-acre sustainable forest, the second-largest privately owned forest in Iowa. Or maybe it’s the contemplative lifestyle of the Trappist monks, who belong to the Cistercian tradition and follow the ancient Rule of St. Benedict.

Beginning with the Office of Readings at 3:30 a.m. and ending with Compline at 7:30 p.m., the monks pray together seven times daily. They pray for you and me—and for all of the faithfully departed.

While a dozen monks do much of the work (living up to their “Genuine Monk-made” trademark), Trappist Caskets has hired some outside help. There aren’t enough monk hands to go around. The abbey boasted 150 men in the 1960s. Today the monks number 32, with an average age of about 70.

“We’re averaging about one death a year,” says Brother Felix Leja, 75, who trades the traditional cowl and black scapular for blue jeans and work shirt.

No nails are used in the solid wood caskets, which meet industry standards for strength and size. Corners are mitered in Old World joinery; handles and hinges are plain.

Unlike traditional caskets, there are no satin sheets or pillows; Trappist caskets are lined with white muslin, the pillows padded with organic straw grown on the monastery farm.

“It takes about 15 hours to make one casket,” says Mulgrew. “Heirloom workmanship goes into each one.”

Orders come in for both “pre-need” (alive) and “need” (recently departed) customers. A well-known peace negotiator in Ireland was laid to rest in a Trappist casket and, when the day comes, Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles Archdiocese expects to be reposed in a premium black walnut model.

Not all pre-need or “future occupants” are deadly serious. One man slept in his coffin to get used to it, and a priest ordered his casket fitted with shelves for use as a bookcase. “He wanted to enjoy his casket this side of eternity,” states an abbey newsletter.

One woman who wanted a joyful funeral asked to be buried in a Chinese-red casket. The monks bought some red paint and spruced up her box. “It was cheery-looking with gold handles,” says the abbot.

The caskets, which are sold directly to the public at wholesale prices, can be shipped most anywhere. Last year the abbey sent a rush order to Wrangell, Alaska, an island town accessible only by air. With the exception of September 11, 2001, when planes were unexpectedly grounded, no Trappist casket has been late for a funeral.

When Abbot Freeman, 65, exits this world, he won’t be buried in a casket at all. In Trappist tradition, the abbot will be laid out on a funeral bier (a wooden platform with low sides), covered with a sheet and simply lowered into the earth.

The monks will chant their songs of farewell and then return to work. The phone is ringing: Another soul has stepped into eternity.

For more information on Trappist Caskets, call (888) 433-6934 or visit

Marion Amberg is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. This article is written in honor of her father, who died as she was beginning her research on this topic.

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