|Worst Funeral Ever (Funny Story) (Breaking in the habit)|
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Sometimes, things go horribly wrong at church. Fr. Casey tells of his worst experience celebrating a funeral mass and what he learned from it.
Hilarious if you're a Cathoic and understand exactly what's happening. Very funny even if you aren't. And a lesson to learn.
Casey Cole, Franciscan friar, is indeed an excellent communicator and a very enternaining story-teller, besides everything else.
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Did you ever have one of those days when absolutely everything goes wrong? Like not just wrong but bizarrely wrong. So wrong that you could have never even conceived of the ways that something could go wrong. Yeah, I had a funeral Mass last week that was…
So I got a call a couple weeks ago from a parish asking if I would cover a funeral mass for them. The pastor was away, it was an emergency. No problem. The parish was 45 minutes away, but when you live in rural Georgia there aren't extra priests lying around, so I kind of feel the responsibility to help out when I can. Sure, no problem. I called the son of the deceased, worked out the readings, the liturgy… everything would be fine. He asked if I would do the burial as well. Not a problem. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. I should have known it wasn't going to be my day the moment I stepped foot on the church campus.
No sooner did I get out of the car, the funeral director approached me with a parking pass and directions informing me that the burial was to take place 25 miles away from the church in the opposite direction from where I lived. Mind you, I've already driven 45 miles so we're talking about an hour and 15 minutes away from home now, so… not exactly what I want to hear but, oh well, I didn't sign up this life for things to be convenient to me so… whatever. No problem. Yeah, more on that later.
So I entered the church, maybe 30 minutes before the service, only to find the family just milling around everywhere. The viewing is done and so they're extremely bored and they're just everywhere. They're hanging out, talking in the vestibule, walking around the sanctuary, getting somewhat antsy, and they ask me if we can start immediately, like 30 minutes early. Oh, okay, sure, fine, just give me a minute like to find things. I've never been to this church, I don't even know where the sacristy is, who's coordinating the mass, there any local customs? I just need to be aware of some things. I want to talk to the woman leading the music, the readers, everyone who's serving just to make sure that everything is in order, right? And that sort of happens.
A bit rushed, I’ll admit, but I got to say hello there everyone, go over a few details, the pianist and I were on the same page, there was an adult altar server who was gonna hold the ritual book and set the altar, so that's great, and I spoke with the family member coordinating the mass. He said there were three family members giving a eulogy, which I didn't realize that's a lot but okay. He asked if they could do it after communion, I said I'd prefer before Mass, but after communion is fine. I'll just give him a little wave when I sit down to know when they can come up, they'll be fine. Really, I mean, what could go wrong? It's just a mass with a few extra prayers. Funerals are super easy. If the congregation has ever been to a mass before, it'll be easy.
When I found out almost immediately, is that that is a big "if". The deceased was Catholic, but the vast majority of her family was not. Now, normally at weddings and funerals you expect participation to be a bit weaker, you know, mixed crowd of Catholics and non-Catholics, but you get by. You don't expect an entire church filled with people to have no idea what's going on.
I realized we were in for a bit of trouble when after the whole assembly processed in from the vestibule after myself and the casket they sat down. While the hymn was still playing, before any greeting or anything. I'm standing on the altar and the congregation is seated. Okay, whatever, this is weird, so I give them all kind of stand up gesture. We do this, all stuff, we're opening collect, they're seated everything's fine. I sit down, we get ready for the first reading and…. Nothing.
I sit there for maybe 5, 10 seconds looking around, nothing happens, so I turn my mic back on and very gently say: the first reading? if you're doing the first reading you can come up now. Nothing. No one moves, so I stand up now. Wisdom? The the the reading from Wisdom? Is someone doing that? We need to have the the first reader, if you could come on up do that now.
A guy in the third row finally stands up, starts walking to the ambo, so great, fine, just mist askew, I guess. Wait, oh, why why why is he carrying two books? What is…? Oh, he brought his own Bible. Okay, probably not a Catholic translation but okay, I'm not gonna stop him so no big deal, let him go.
I sit down, all was good now, we have a reader, the mass is moving. Wait, why does he have a stack of papers? What, what does he do? I look over to the ambo and he's got two books laid open pile of papers lying them all up and he says so I'd like to read a bit from the Psalms today.
Wait, wait, wait, wait, no no no, not not yet. That's not the song yet. The first reading, Wisdom. I feel bad but my homily is very heavily based on the first reading so we're not skipping it. So I try to come off a little softly, and without the mic on, oh not the song yet, could you do the first reading? Yes, the book underneath the lectionary. Yeah, can you…? Okay, great, thank you.
Whooh. Never experienced that one before, the psalmist skipping the first reading. But again, as I said, there were very few people here who were actually Catholic so you rolled the punches. He read the first reading, did the psalm, things were moving along, there was just the one reading so as soon as he was finished I looked over the pianist, we were ready for the al--. Wait. Is he giving a eulogy right now? Yes, in the middle of the readings, before the gospel.
This guy starts talking about how much he loved his grandmother, what she meant to him, the whole thing. I look over at the pianist, I look at the congregation. What am I supposed to do? He immediately starts to cry, so I'm absolutely not gonna interrupt him, but I know a eulogy at this point of the mass is far from appropriate, so I just sat there very very confused. I knew we were rushed at the beginning but we did agree that the eulogy would come after Communion, not after the psalm. So I don't know what's going on here. But you let it go, what can you do?
I let him finish, which of course ends with a standing ovation, a few people audibly calling out “great job” and cheering. So all sense of liturgical form is gone. But from this point on I'm sort of in control. So I just start to run with it. I stand up for the Alleluia, I look at the pianist and, wait! Why are there two pe…? oh my God! The other two eulogies. There's two men standing at the ambo.
I've sort of had enough at this point so I'm a bit more direct. Hey guys, um can we wait until the end? We're gonna do those after Communion, so I'll just let you know. Okay, can we, can we wait right now? Thanks. Yuks.
The Alleluia begins, I stands, the congregation doesn't, so I do one of these again. Read the gospel, give the homily, we have a solid five minutes of normalcy to Mass and I sit down again. Killing a mix of frustration and hysteria, I gave a few minutes of silence to collect myself and I stand for the prayer of the faithful. I know at this point nothing should really surprise me and you probably know exactly what's coming next, but there were no prayers. They hadn't written them. The parish hadn't provided them, there was just nothing. So once more I stood there very awkwardly in a moment of silence waiting for someone to do something and then just ad-lib them to almost no response and we moved on.
What can you do? At least at this point it's the Eucharistic prayer. They may not respond but I'm kind of in control of the rest of the mass. if I'm the one leading it and I know what I'm doing, what can go wrong? I go with the server to prepare the altar and she starts piling on chalices and patens and I'm thinking “we need one of each, that's fine” but she keeps bringing them so I put a few back, no worries I wait for the Corporal and the missal and… wait, where'd she go?
She she just walked away. Yeah, she, she's just gone. She just went to get the cross for the procession and I guess assuming that her priest knows where the other stuff is and probably gets it himself forgetting that I've never stepped foot in this church so I'm just standing there now, looking for the missal with an empty altar. Are you a missal, are you a miss… come out, come out, wherever you are, where are you?
At long last I find the missal hiding in the corner once again making it look like I have no idea what I'm doing. Put it on the altar and then have a moment of panic realizing that I should have set the pages before. This is not a missal I'm used to, so that's on me. So I quickly flip through, do my best. Fine, we're rolling, we're ready to go. I go up in front of the altar to receive the gifts but of course the casket is in the middle.
It's a real small church so I stand to the side, the altar server comes down with the cross and goes to the other side to get out of the way, which makes sense, and the gift bearers follow her to the other side of the altar where I'm not standing. Come on guys, come on. From here everything in the Eucharistic prayer goes fine. People don't sing but that's normal. We go for the sign of peace and everyone just forgets that they're in church. Immediately the place breaks into a roar. They're laughing, there shouting, they're hugging, they're walking all around the church. I mean. I'm happy that the tragedy hasn't caused despair, that they're still able to rejoice, so that's good, but it just doesn't stop.
I stand by the altar ready for the fraction, right? and it keeps going. The pianist starts playing “The Lamb of God” and it's still going. The fraction, right? is over. I hold up the host in the chalice and I have to talk over the people because they're still going. I'm standing there feeling like a middle school teacher like “hmm hmmm”. Excuse me, hello, attention, please stop talking. Again, what can you do?
I go on with the mass. They can join if they like, I'm not about to yell at people at their mother's funeral, so you just keep going. Communion goes exactly as expected. Of the 75 or so in attendance maybe 10 receive communion, so there's that. I can tell it's meaningful for those ten so I'm happy to do it. I'm also just happy that it's all over. Ha! Over! I wish.
After the altar is cleaned I sit down on my chair, give a moment of silence, I look over to the man who's coordinating everything, give a little wave. What? other eulogies come on up now? and and nothing! So I wave again and do this motion, “come on up, come on up”. Nothing! So so I sit there a little confused and I look over and, oh, someone comes up! So we're good, we're good. All right, so I kind of just sit there and relax. I want to listen so I just kind of close my eyes a little bit and then I hear him say “a reading from the book of Wisdom”. Are you serious? The first reader has come to do the reading AFTER Communion.
All right. Ha ha, I mean, at this point what can you do but laugh? I don't know what to do, so the man reads the first reading after mass is over and he sits down, and then there's no other eulogy. The other two eulogies just don't come up so. Okay. We're done, we're done. All of this is over, I stand up we're gonna do the final prayer. I stand up, I grab the book, I look around for the altar server to hold it and… she's gone. Nope, she's gone. I look everywhere the church, she's not there, not there. Nope, can't find her. So, you know, what I'll just hold it myself, we're gonna move on. I’ll do the final prayer in commendation and we'll end this Mass once and for all.
I walk up to the casket, motion to the pallbearers, who obviously are not paying attention. And who walks out but the altar server holding the thurible? Okay, sure. We didn't do incense at the beginning but we can do it now. I take the thurible and give it a swing or t… Wait, there's no incense in it. So I look over, I said “is there any, is there any incense in this?” she goes “oh, that's right” and she turns around and walks back to the sacristy to get the boat. That, folks, was a first for me. Bringing in a +++ and forgetting the incense was something I never thought I'd see, but then again, what do you expect from this day?
After that's all over the whole assembly eventually processes out of the church with the casket. We've all survived, it's finally over, I go back to the vesting sacristy, collect my things and head to my car. Now, you remember from the beginning when I said that the burial was going to be about 25 miles away and that my initial thought was that that was a mere inconvenience? Well, two minutes into our drive things took a turn for the worst. My gas light came on. Yes, in a procession of 40 cars driving 25 miles at 25 miles an hour when I am arguably the most important person at the ceremony, my car beeps to let me know that I only have 30 miles left before I run out of gas.
What do you do? I can't leave the procession, we have a police escort and I'm the first in line. I also can't run out of gas, that would probably be worse. Technically the car says that I'm gonna make it, but you never know how accurate these things are, and you don't know if the funeral home is actually 25 miles away or really 32 and they just gave me a rough estimate. So I had to risk it. I turned the air conditioner off, rolled down the windows, made sure my RPms never got higher than two. I didn't use my brake unless it was absolutely necessary, getting every ounce of momentum out of my car as I could, and just hoped it would work.
Oh, and it was 96 degrees in Georgia that day. So... yeah. After that drive, let me tell you, I was good on penance for a while. I did in fact make it. The car reading seven miles left in the tank, but I was completely soaked from the sweat and anxious from an hour of constantly worrying. But I made it. We did the burial, which was fine, no problems. Nothing crazy. The family thanked me for a beautiful service, appreciated me driving all that I did, and I was on my way.
The unexpected hour drive put me much further behind in the day than I expected and so I saw that I only had about 15 minutes for lunch if I want to make it back in time for confessions, but I was gonna make it, I could pull it off. Oh, and yeah, I hadn't eaten at all that day, so add a touch of hunger to everything and you understand my day.
And yet, at the end of all this, despite absolutely everything going wrong, despite it being by far the worst funeral ever, everything seemed to work out fine. It certainly taught me to check and double-check everything before beginning, let me tell you, but more than that, it sort of confirmed what I always been taught about liturgy and pastoral ministry. While I was upset throughout the entire service, and rightly so, the family was completely unaffected by what was going wrong. They weren't concerned with protocols or rubrics, they were just there to mourn their mother and grandmother.
While not suggesting that the rubrics aren't important, that that we should just accommodate whatever the family wants (the right is beautiful and should be followed) I do think that it's always important to remember that our prayer and worship serves our needs and not the other way around. I could have been much more strict. I could have caught this guy off in the middle of his eulogy and been completely in the right. That was inappropriate and I need to maintain the reverence of the liturgy. But what would that’ve done for the family, a family that by the looks of things has not had a lot of meaningful experiences of Church. Despite the major irregularities in the service, the family left having had a good experience of church, having properly mourned their loved one, and possibly even more open to faith.
Pastoral ministry is messy. Sometimes it can be just a complete disaster from start to finish and you leave frustrated with yourself because everything went wrong. But that doesn't mean that it's a failure. Even in the midst of the worst funeral ever God's Healing Touch can be present. For me as someone who is often a perfectionist, who wants things done a certain way, wants to follow the rules and do it right, it's a reminder to me that I'm not in control. God is. I can show up and I can hopefully prepare better and do my best. But at the end of the day it's not up to me how His grace is given. God is the one who heals. God is the one who loves and God's the one who does everything. As a pastoral minister, let me tell you, that is a huge relief.