By Pete Sheehan
The trend in funerals today toward more personalized, less traditional ceremonies is taking these services where no funerals have gone before.
In recent years funeral industry officials have reported a wide range of different ways people are paying tribute to friends and loved ones. For example, a Houston-based Space Services Inc., specializing in commercial space ventures, will launch cremated remains into orbit.
Other more literally down-to-earth funerals have included ceremonies on a golf course when the deceased was an avid golfer or having an ice cream truck lead the funeral procession for the burial of man who made his living selling ice cream.
“We have been seeing this for some time,” said Daniel Biggins, a spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association and vice president and chief operating officer for Magoun-Biggins Funeral Home in Rockland, Mass.
More common personalized mfunerals include photo displays, play- ing videos about the deceased or music dear to the departed, Biggins said. Often the funeral home is replacing the church as the funeral venue – with or without a minister, priest or deacon.
“People want the funeral to reflect the life of their loved one,” Biggins said. “It is a very consumer-driven movement.”
Many who minister to grieving families from a Christian perspective say they understand the desire for personalized funerals, but they also offer caution.
Rev. Thomas Long, a Presbyterian minister and professor of theology at Emory University in Atlanta, said the trend of personalized funerals reflects changes in the culture.
“It took five centuries for the Christian church to develop a funeral rite that is truly Christian,” said Rev. Long, author of “Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral.”
The narrative behind the Christian approach to a funeral, he explained, is that “the deceased is on a journey to God. We are accompanying them along the journey.”
He said the journey begins with baptism, for which the newly baptized person wears a white garment. At the funeral, the final stage of that journey, the deceased has a white pall draped over the casket to evoke baptism.
Sister Mary Alice Piil, C.S.J., director of the Office of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., said some families, in their desire for personalization, have difficulty grasping the symbolism in traditional funerals.
For example, she said one woman spoke to her about a New York Yankees’ flag draped over a casket at a funeral and couldn’t understand the insistence on the traditional white pall.
Yet the same woman came back a few weeks later with glowing stories about her grandson’s baptism.
“Was your grandson wearing a Yankees’ gown?” Sister Mary Alice inquired.
“I’m beginning to see your point,” the woman replied.
“At the heart of the Catholic funeral is the Catholic faith,” said Msgr. Rick Hilgartner, former director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Divine Worship in Washington.
“It’s not just the remembrance of the deceased,” Msgr. Hilgartner said, but the Paschal Mystery, what Jesus does to save, and the kingdom of God.
Rev. Long traces the shift in focus of the Christian funeral to the 19th century, pointing out that funerals began emphasizing the mourners and their sorrow more than the person’s journey of life and death, which he said narrowed the focus to “an exercise in grief management.”
He said that he does not object to grief management, but did add that the “best thing for grief management is meaning,” which the traditional Christian funeral “is better able to communicate.”
He said the modern personalized services – that leave out the deceased’s connection with their community or faith – offer “false comfort” that fades once mourners leave the service.
“It’s possible to do both,” said Jay Smith, president of Smith-Corcoran Funeral Home in Chicago. He said most families chose a traditional funeral, but there are still efforts to make the funerals more personal, particularly at the funeral home.
“The funeral home is simply that, an extension of the home,” agreed Sister Mary Alice. “That is the place to tell the stories, to sing the songs, to show the pictures.” The funeral home is also the place for a eulogy, a remembrance of the person who died.
At the funeral Mass, there is a different dynamic, she said, where the Scripture readings, homily, sacred music and all the other liturgical elements work together. Introducing secular music or a eulogy during Mass “disrupts the whole flow.”
While there might be confusion in today’s culture about the value of traditional Christian rites, Sister Mary Alice said, “if you take the time to explain it to people, they get it.”