Reclaiming Our Rites

As someone who’s had several deaths in my family, I can testify that prayers and casseroles are both helpful to the grieving process. But they’re not the only things that church people have to offer.

Members and pastors of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Austin, Texas, provide the bereaved with babysitting, transportation help, meals, liturgy planning, accompaniment to the funeral home, a post-funeral reception, bereavement groups, and counseling. Last year parishioners Carole Hawkins, Bob Leidlein, and Cheryl Grossman put together a resource booklet (incorporating materials from the Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society) after having shared their "funeral stories" with one another. They credit Father Oliver Johnson for actively encouraging parishioners to draw from their experiences and create ministries for the whole community.

Grossman is involved in plans for a diocesan-wide conference on the pastoral response to end-of-life issues. "This opens the forum to a large geographic area and a diverse community," she explains. "Folks without many financial or education resources will have access to a wide variety of experience and information."

Smaller churches can also offer help. An Episcopal church in Kansas included information about funeral planning in a Lenten study series on death and dying. Five Nazarene churches in a community came together to negotiate a special rate for their members with a local funeral home. An adult Sunday school class might take on death and funerals. Beyond the News: Facing Death, a 34-minute video and print study guide produced by Mennonite Media might be a useful resource (1-800-999-3534;, or check with your denomination for other source material.

Some churches form funeral committees, a group of volunteers who provide full-service, do-it-yourself funeral, memorial, and cremation arrangements. Caring for the Dead, by Lisa Carlson, includes a chapter specifically on how to start a congregational funeral committee. Another helpful book, written by a Quaker, Ernest Morgan, is Dealing Creatively with Death: A Manual of Death Education and Simple Burial (Barclay House Books, 1998).

Informed pastors or peer counselors can play a key role, especially when there has been an unexpected death. Survivors in shock have to make permanent decisions that can carry huge emotional and financial implications. "Most people don’t necessarily need to be told what to do, but they do need someone to pastorally ask them questions to help sort their options," says Terri Dalton. Guilt may lead a person to spend more than they can afford on a family member’s funeral, for example, or they may not be able to think clearly about implications of a cemetery’s proximity. (Dalton notes that some people realize too late that they’ve chosen a cemetery that is difficult to visit; for many, such visits are an important part of the grieving process.)

There’s been a recent upsurge in churches who’ve added columbaria (niches for cremated remains) or scattering gardens to their buildings or grounds. This modern adaptation of the church yard cemetery provides a meaningful and often more affordable choice of final destination for church members and their families. "Having this spot on site makes sense to a lot of people who love their church," says Rev. Doug Maben, a minister whose church, Green Mountain Presbyterian in Lakewood, Colorado, is in the process of building a columbarium. "It feels much more personal and sacred for many than going to the multinational-owned cemetery." —JP

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