Recently I presided at a funeral Mass at a nursing home. The deceased—let’s call him John—resided there for fifteen years. John’s wife Mary was suffering dementia and John cared for her as best he could. Then, John died.
His family and the pastoral staff told me that helping Mary understand that John had died proved difficult. No one knew how she might react at his funeral. Yet, when she saw John’s corpse from her wheel chair, she spoke his name and wept at the casket. Then she lapsed into silence.
Catholic nursing care facilities usually have a pastoral staff, but often there is no priest on the team. So the family and the staff must find a priest to preside at funeral liturgies if they will not take place in a parish. John and Mary had both outlived their pastor. Pastors of neighboring parishes were not available. So I accepted the family’s request. Ideally, pastors should know their flock, but that is not always possible. So, presiding at funerals like this one is never easy.
As it turned out, the funeral was beautiful. The wake was in the nursing home chapel, just before Mass. That provided time for friends and family to express their sympathy. It also helped me learn how John lived his life of faith. One of John’s nieces organized family members to handle the Scripture readings and the prayers of the faithful. The pastoral staff acted as Eucharistic ministers while a family friend led the music. Good planning and the participation of family and friends are needed if the Mass of Resurrection is to be a meaningful celebration of the liturgy.
As a Franciscan priest, I am amazed how God’s grace penetrates our human frailty and reminds us that we all go home to God. The poet John Donne expressed it so beautifully: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
Photo Credit: nuchylee
St. Anthony Messenger Press has great resources for those doing ministry with terminally ill patients and with grieving families. These may be of interest.