The business of death

jerome2Considering its ubiquity, death has to be one of the most under-reported aspects of the religion beat. Dying, death and funerals are major topics in the life of every pastor -- but usually they only get covered when they happen to someone famous. So I was glad that Louisville Courier-Journal religion reporter Pete Smith was able to discuss the topic of funerals. His hook is amazing:

A Nelson County funeral home director is suing the Archdiocese of Louisville and a Roman Catholic priest, whom he accuses of undercutting his business by implementing new rules on conducting funerals at his parish. Advertisement

The Rev. Jeffrey Leger, pastor of St. Catherine Church in New Haven, put a new policy into effect last month, stipulating that funeral directors can no longer solely plan funerals. Instead, they must now plan them with Leger, who has final say.

It's the dirty little secret of church life that some funeral directors are responsible for exerting a great deal of power over funeral services. Sometimes that's a net blessing for the parties involved. Grieving family members don't always make the best decisions about funerals. But for churches, such as mine, that approach funerals as worship services in which the Word of God is proclaimed in order to comfort those who grieve with hope in the resurrected Christ -- meddling from non-members can wreak havoc. I say all this as a descendant of successful funeral home directors on one side of the family and the daughter of a pastor on the other side of the family. I really like the way Smith just laid the facts out in order to quickly get into the meat of the story:

The new policy, which Leger outlined in a 10-page letter to funeral directors, strictly enforces church law and liturgical practices that limit such things as the types of readings, music and eulogies at funeral Masses.

Ron Rust, owner of the William R. Rust Funeral Home in New Haven, said the policy will interfere with his longstanding business of coordinating funerals that are held at St. Catherine.

Rust claims intentional and wrongful interferences and seeks a temporary injunction halting implementation of the policy pending his lawsuit seeking damages. He claims a right to direct funerals without constraints. One thing I liked about Smith's story is that he quoted Leger's theological defense before he got into the specifics of what is forbidden:

In his letter to funeral homes, he said the purpose of a funeral Mass is to "illumine the mystery of Christian death in light of the risen Christ," and that everything must focus on the Christian hope of resurrection.

Anything that could distract from that should be avoided, he wrote, adding that eulogies, recorded music and nonbiblical readings such as poetry and letters are forbidden except under limited circumstances.

Such personalized features should take place at the vigil service, typically held the evening before the Mass at either the church or the funeral home, he said.

Smith also checked with the Archdiocese of Louisville to see if Leger was in accordance with church teaching. They said he was. The article explains other aspects of the funeral policy, permitting Leger's letter to speak for itself. It's so nice to have the column inches required to explain some of the theology underpinning Christian burial. Others picked up on the story, but didn't give nearly enough space.

Art is Bastiani's Funeral of St. Jerome, via the World Gallery of Art.

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