By FRAN PERRTANO
When her Uncle Tom Averson died at age 74 this summer, Cynthia Zainchowski knew what kind of memorial he would want.
“It was important for our family that he had a funeral Mass because he was a very devout Catholic,” said Cynthia, who helped plan the funeral. “Going to weekly Sunday Mass was the highlight of his week. We felt he deserved a Mass dedicated to his honor.”
And with the help of the Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament funeral team, the celebration of his life more than lived up to his family’s expectations.
“We were able to pick the readings that best suited Tom,” Cynthia said. “The music was perfect as Peter Elacqua knew what songs that Tom liked. A family member was able to give the eulogy. Plus, Father (Jim) talked about how he knew Tom personally. In every way the Mass was both personal and comforting.”
In our current world, many families of those who pass on to eternal life bypass a funeral Mass, electing instead to have services elsewhere.
Peter Elacqua, along with his sister-in-law Anne Elacqua, work alongside families planning funeral Masses. Anne said there are other ways for Catholics to be remembered or buried without a Mass, but they don’t quite offer the same level of comfort and respect as does a funeral Mass.
“Oftentimes, families will have a funeral prayer service at the funeral home or even graveside,” she said. “A priest will go to the funeral home or grave and offer scripture readings, prayers and a homily to those present.”
But for those raised in the Catholic faith, a funeral Mass is the most appropriate way to honor the deceased.
Honoring your deceased family member with a funeral or memorial Mass shows your commitment to the faith of your family member. Though the funeral or memorial Mass celebrates the life of the deceased, it is meant to be the sign of a bridge between life on Earth and eternal life with God. The funeral service offers an opportunity for those assembled to grow stronger in their own faith and to be supported by the faith of others.
“The funeral Mass is a time to pray for the deceased person and for those who grieve,” said Peter Elacqua. “It is a time to remember the dignity and holiness of life and to affirm our faith in the resurrection of Jesus and in our own personal resurrection to eternal life. When a person of deep faith dies, it is best for the family to honor that person with a funeral Mass in church.”
When Janice Felitto died at age 70 in May following a battle with cancer, it was up to her niece Caroline Felitto Suttle to help plan the funeral.
“Catholic faith is a cornerstone in my uncle (Anthony Felitto) and aunt’s life, and although we wished to have her earthly life last longer, she and we were comforted by the faith she was home with our Lord and family who have passed before her, like her loving parents,” Caroline said. “We felt strongly we needed the opportunity to celebrate her life in her church, singing her favorite songs and focused on the love we have for her and the love she had for us, God and Mount Carmel. It was healing.”
Mass brings people together
Peter said “it is sad” when the deceased person was someone of deep faith and the family decides not to have a funeral Mass because family members might not see its importance.
“Sometimes, families opt for convenience rather than celebrating more fully the life of the deceased through dignified prayer and ritual offered by the church,” he said. “The church liturgy is a place for everyone to gather with the purpose of praying together. The funeral home does not provide the same atmosphere of prayer that a church can offer.
“Also, for people who have fallen away from faith, or for those who are weak in their faith, a well-celebrated funeral can bring people back to church and to a deeper appreciation for community.”
Even if the deceased preferred cremation, a funeral Mass still is appropriate.
“You can have a Mass with the deceased body present or their cremains at the Mass,” Anne said. “The church, however, feels that the body is sacred, whether in full body form or cremated, and therefore the cremains need to be buried to preserve the sacredness of the individual. The church does not want you scattered in the park or over your favorite body of water or sitting on a mantle forever either. Their belief is to have you buried.”
The loss of a loved one not only is a loss for a few people or for a family, it is a loss for the community as well.
“Why not celebrate that life and loss with hope and faith and with the beauty of a liturgy, ritual and prayer,” Peter said. “So many people from our parish wish to honor the memory of someone by attending that person’s funeral and by praying for that person in a place that can be uplifting and holy.
“Families who attend a funeral Mass can understand their beloved deceased member as someone who was more than just a relative, friend, co-worker. The church highlights more than the little we might know about the person who died. The church tells us how that person is a cherished child of God, a member of a community that is larger, greater and more encompassing than a family or a group of friends. To place that person’s life into the hands of God together with so many others can be a powerfully moving time and something so much more memorable than a few prayers or stories told outside the church.”
Funeral team helps families
Many families are too grief stricken or overwhelmed to plan the entire funeral service. If this is true for you, the Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament team will plan all or parts of the funeral for you.
First, the funeral home calls the church secretary (Terri Panuccio) and musicians (Peter and Anne) with the time and date of the funeral and other essential information.
The funeral home informs the family about our parish website that includes all planning information. It also informs the family that someone will be in touch with them from the parish to guide them in their choices.
This online guide at www.mountcarmelblessedsacrament.com is set up in six parts:
- Choosing scriptures and readers.
- Gathering procedures (including pall placers and offertory gift presenters).
- Choosing sacred music (including diocesan policy regarding popular, secular, favorite or recorded music.)
- Should someone give a eulogy? (Advice for the eulogy presenter.)
- Respecting church space.
- Livestreaming the funeral Mass.
- If you are not computer savvy, we have binders with planning information that can be picked up at the rectory, or the church funeral planner can meet with you at your convenience. We prefer that funeral planning not be rushed or regarded as just another task. If you wish to plan the funeral service or any part of it, this guide will help you.
Next, the family receives a phone call from Peter or Anne, who can answer questions and help guide them with the choices they make.
The funeral Mass is just like a regular Sunday Mass with very few additions. The priest and ministers greet the body at mid-church at the opening of the service and a funeral pall (a large white drape) is placed over the casket as a reminder of the baptism of the deceased person.
Sometimes a eulogy is given at the beginning of the service so that all those assembled can be attuned to the life and some cherished memories of the deceased. The eulogy also can welcome and gather everyone together. Eulogies are not always given since Father Jim always highlights the life of the deceased person in a special and unique way. Eulogies should be five to six minutes so that it does not become repetitive or overshadow the power of the church prayer.
Memories of the deceased more often are better expressed through storytelling that is shared among people at a wake, graveside service or a funeral reception. Eulogies should highlight the Christian characteristics of the life of the deceased.
At the end of the funeral, prayers of commendation are offered before the casket. These prayers underscore the opening of the gates of heaven and eternal life to the deceased person.
Choir, servers part of service
At Mount Carmel, we have a funeral choir that sings at every funeral. We offer our song as a prayer and as a comfort for the family and friends of the deceased. It is a gift from the parish that has no charge. Often, a pianist is included with the choir in addition to the organist who is hired by the family. A choir helps to engage the family and friends in fuller participation by singing and praying aloud together. It makes us understand that the death is a loss to our entire community.
There also are adult servers who participate during the funerals.
We follow diocesan rules with every funeral — so popular music is not allowed in church, nor is recorded music ever allowed. We encourage popular music to be used at wakes, receptions or at graveside services following the funeral. Also, popular readings may not be substituted for scripture readings but also can be used outside of the church service.
If a family would like to livestream the Mass, we need to know that as soon as possible so we can find an operator for our livestream equipment.
Finally, every family receives a keepsake folder at the funeral that includes a keepsake of the funeral liturgy; copies of eulogy; a personalized card from Father Jim; a listing of times for extra Masses to be offered for the deceased; the names of parishioners who served, ministered, read or sung at the funeral; information on the first name of the person and his or her patron saint; special prayers that can be offered privately; general information on our parish and parish membership and some help and guidance for personal growth and bereavement.
Helping ease the burden
“We are very pastoral and careful in our planning,” Peter said. “We do not want to burden families that may be overwhelmed. We are always ready to help plan the entire funeral even with just very few suggestions from the family. We take time to read the obituaries and to recommend readings and music that highlight the life of the deceased. Father always chooses a gospel that will fit and that will be the basis for his homily and reflection on the life of the deceased.
“No two funerals are the same at Mount Carmel,” he added. “They are extremely individualized and unique. They are times of deep prayer and faith expression, even through so much suffering and grief. Bringing and building faith at every funeral is one of the most healing and memorable parts of every funeral Mass. Funerals make us all understand the sanctity of life, the holy dignity of the deceased person and the healing love of God. It is the best way to honor the one we love so deeply.”
For families who are hesitant, Caroline Felitto Suttle puts it in perspective.
“The death of a loved one is never easy. In our particular situation, Janice passed away after a short cancer battle and our family wasn’t ready,” she said. “It was a tragic loss for us and during that time you want to be surrounded by people who lift you up and offer support. … I will forever be grateful for the beautiful Mass and true celebration and send off Mount Carmel provided for my aunt. I know my uncle Anthony Felitto is also appreciative of the ease of working with his church during a difficult time.”