When I was a freshman in college, my grandpa passed away suddenly. Making new friends and studying for my first exams took a back seat as I struggled through the loss of a dearly loved grandparent. I am forever grateful for the friends who supported me during that time. One of my childhood friends called me the day of the funeral Mass and said, “I was on my way to school this morning but I am turning around. I will see you at the funeral.” As you can imagine, that meant the world to me.
When a family member passes away, it is usually a given that we will attend the funeral services to honor their life and pray for their soul. However, when it comes to other people experiencing loss — friends, acquaintances and coworkers — we may let our hesitations get the better of us.
Death is uncomfortable. It can stir up many questions and feelings in our own hearts. It may bring up painful memories of our own losses — memories we don’t want to relive. We may be unsure what to say to a friend or coworker who just lost a loved one. But there are really good reasons to push past these hesitations and take the step to attend the funeral, anyway.
Recently, a fellow millennial told me she has never attended a wake. I am sure she is not alone. Wakes, memorials, funeral Masses, and burials are not something everyone has experienced, and it’s not always easy to know the differences between the types of services that people use to mark the death of a loved one.
During a wake or visitation, family and friends gather in a funeral home, a church, or even a home. Typically the deceased person is in a casket, which may be open or closed. During this time, you can share your condolences with the family. Catholics will often pray the rosary during a wake.
A funeral, memorial service, or celebration of life is a structured event that may include prayers, Scripture readings, songs, stories about the deceased, and other forms of remembrance. It may be religious or non-religious. If the deceased was Catholic, the funeral might be in their parish church — in that case, it will be a Mass with the funeral rites included within the prayers and ritual.
During a burial service, the casket is placed in the ground or in a mausoleum. If the deceased is cremated, the ashes may also be placed in a mausoleum. While Catholics honor the dignity of the body by burying ashes together, people of other traditions might even scatter the ashes in a special place. These services are often private events for family and close friends — for example, not everyone attending a Catholic funeral Mass will journey out to the cemetery afterward to bury the body.
If you look at the Latin root of the word compassion you find two words. “Com” means with and “pati” means suffer. So the literal translation of compassion is “to suffer with.”
One beautiful way to show compassion is to attend the services held for the deceased. By showing up, you express your openness to “suffer with” your friends during this difficult time. You can offer these simple expressions to show support: “I’m praying for you and your family;” “I am so sorry for your loss;” “Let me know if you need anything.”
(Then follow up a day or two later to see what you can do for your friend — don’t wait for them to reach out to ask for help.)
Grief doesn’t have preset start and end dates. Checking in, listening, and accepting our friend’s pain — in the short and long term — is another layer of “suffering with” our friends.
The primary reason to attend funeral services is to support those who are suffering. As Catholics, we also attend to pray for the soul of the deceased. There is an additional reason to attend, however: it’s good for you.
It’s good for us to face death and all that’s uncomfortable about it. It’s good to be reminded that heaven and hell are real. It’s good to examine our own lives and see if we are living to our full potential. It’s good to consider how we hope to be remembered when we die.
Funeral services are an opportunity to refocus on what matters in the end: how well we are living, loving, and following God during our limited time on earth.
Life has not ended, it has simply changed
Next time you find yourself at a funeral Mass, listen for this: “Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.” This beautiful line points us beyond the here and now to the hope of heaven.
Death is not the end. It’s the potential beginning of sharing eternal life with God. And yet, for those left behind, death can be a cause of great sorrow and sadness. Be the kind of person who steps into that space and accompanies someone experiencing loss. Attend the services, show true compassion, and allow your own life to be transformed by the experience.