Most priests and ministers dread having to perform the funeral rites of their parents.
I first had to do this a few weeks ago. My father died of congestive heart failure on Palm Sunday, at the ripe old age of 86. While the pain of his loss is still quite near to me, I am comforted by the knowledge that my mother, his wife of 59 years, was able to speak to him just three hours before he died. She told him that he was loved, and a good and decent man, who provided nobly for her and their six children. What a blessing to receive such a commendation. That is as good an ending as anyone could hope to script.
But due to the strict social distancing rules in place in New Jersey and much of the rest of the world, everything else about the Rites of Christian Burial, and the customary human interactions that accompany the death of a loved one, were essentially unscripted. They had to be written as we went along.
First, there could be no funeral Mass, at least not during the lockdown. I know this was a disappointment to my father, a lifelong Catholic who fervently believed in the Eucharist. Second, only ten people would be permitted at the funeral home. For a gregarious man with a wife, six children, three sons-in-law, eight grandchildren, and many other relatives and friends, this was going to be bad medicine for us, after already swallowing the bitterest of pills. And third, only three people would be allowed at the graveside, and one of them had to be the funeral director.
As an active duty Air Force chaplain, the first thing I needed to do was get permission from my 4-star commander to break the “Stop Movement” order issued to all military personnel several weeks earlier. Before I could be granted this exception to policy, I had to clearly outline where I would be going and how I would be complying with all of the hygiene and social distancing measures.
Once this was approved, and I made my enumerated plans to travel back to New Jersey, I felt a strange sense of relief. I was relieved that I would not have to try to keep my composure in front of a church full of people as I presided at my father’s funeral Mass, especially as I looked out at my grieving family—in particular, our crestfallen mother. I would, in some ways, be spared from that onerous burden that so many priests have had to endure.
On Holy Thursday, the day of the “prayers and burial,” I went to the funeral home with my five siblings, mother, and brothers-in-law. We had our mandatory face masks and bottles of hand sanitizer. There was no hugging, just the CDC-recommended head nod and wave. But as I was getting ready to lead the family in prayers, my parents’ parish priest unexpectedly showed up to pay his final respects. Like a heaven-sent messenger, he then also agreed to lead the prayers so that I could sit and weep with my family. That was a huge consolation.
The final rite of the day was the burial, with a maximum of two family members permitted. My mother sacrificed for her children, as she and my father had done so many times before. She decided that my brother and I would be the two who would go to bury Dad. She and everyone else would return to their homes.
At the graveside, I finally had to do something priestly—say the Prayers of Committal. There, my brother and I said some prayers from the ritual, and concluded with the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be—prayers that my father used to say with us kids almost every night before we went to sleep.
At the conclusion of those prayers, I felt a sense of peace and denouement for the first time since Palm Sunday. My dad would have loved a big funeral Mass, with lots of priests on the altar and maybe even a bishop or two. Something inside me would have liked that as well, but I learned to accept, and even take comfort from, the promise of Christ: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them” (Mt. 18:20). Our Lord was with us that day, and remains with us in our isolated quarantine. I pray for the thousands of other families who have had to go through the same ordeal—I pray that they discover the living presence of Christ in the midst of these strange and unusual circumstances.
James A. Hamel is a Catholic priest serving on active duty in the Air Force. He is currently the Command Chaplain at Air Combat Command, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia.