Up Front and Personal

A Funeral Director’s Perspective on Rites

By Alexandra Kathryn Mosca

I never thought that as a funeral director I would become a combatant in a cultural war.

Like many of my colleagues, I became a funeral director for the same reasons that people became priests: It is a sacred calling. As funeral directors, we care for, and give dignity, to the dead. We also attempt to help grieving families with what we see as a transition from this life to the next, through time-honored rites and rituals.

But, these days, I find myself having to stand up for those rites and rituals. The traditional funeral is increasingly under assault by a small but vocal fringe element. They see the funeral Mass as unnecessary, looking to replace it with non-denominational laypersons known as celebrants. They also look upon cemeteries as a waste of space, urging people to cremate and scatter the cremains (contrary to church teaching). And just when I think it can’t get any more irreverent, a new practice is being introduced: the composting of human remains.

The remark by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio in his May 15, 2021 Put Out Into the Deep column says it all: “It is truly incredible how the respect for the human body has diminished.”

The media has shown unusual zeal to embrace — and celebrate — new and strange funeral practices. The implicit message is traditional funerals no longer matter. Forty years in funeral service has taught me otherwise.

I see daily how families come together to say goodbye to loved ones. Funeral traditions give us comfort, order, stability… and hope. They reinforce values both religious and cultural. 

“Funeral Masses and rituals are designed to honor the tenets of our Catholic faith but also to bring consolation and solace to grieving families. For me, in my 30 years of priesthood, my favorite liturgy to celebrate is the funeral Mass,” said Father Joseph Fonti, Pastor of St. Mel’s R.C. Church in Whitestone, New York.

“It’s where the ‘rubber meets the road’ and everyone is stopped, even me, to consider life and what it entails.”

I don’t believe all is lost. I know that from seeing communities where Catholic immigrants have settled. They are at the forefront of keeping tradition alive, no matter what others are doing.

Their adherence to the traditional is “based on a deep appreciation for the previous generation and what their parents have done for them. They reciprocate that by showing respect in funeral rites,” explained funeral director John Heyer  Jr., of Scotto and Heyer Funeral Directors.

We can all learn from them.

Alexandra K. Mosca is a funeral director and writer. She is the author of three books and regularly covers funeral services.