Bishop and Funeral Directors meet

BRIDGEPORT—On February 11, Bishop Caggiano met with a group of 45 funeral directors at the Catholic Center for a wide-ranging discussion about Catholic funeral practices, including cremation, fees, eulogies, and the condition of the Diocese’s nine cemeteries.

Bishop Caggiano brought the funeral directors together to solicit their thoughts and input about diocesan burial practices. The session was the first step in updating the diocesan sacramental guidelines,” which were last revised in 1983. “You are the face of compassion,” the Bishop told the group, “you are part of the pastoral ministry of our diocese.”

Msgr. Thomas Powers, Vicar General, said the funeral directors will help inform members of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission, formed by the Bishop to oversee the project to revise sacramental guidelines. The funeral rites are the first area to be considered.“My goal is to create a set of uniform, comprehensive and effective guidelines for the pastoral and liturgical worship surrounding all the sacraments of the Church,” Bishop Caggiano said.

The process is beginning with funeral rites because in recent years there have been inconsistent practices and confusion. He said, “We live in an evolving world that has become a hodgepodge of practices around burials.”

The Liturgical Commission will draft provisional norms that take into consideration the input from the funeral directors. They will be reviewed at the General Meeting of the Presbyterate on April 18, and a first draft will be shared with the funeral directors.

By September, the norms will be introduced, but not finalized until the following September after a trial period during which any necessary revisions are made. The Bishop asked the directors for an honest assessment about “what they are experiencing doing the work God has given them.” The discussion was open and candid and covered areas from pricing to differences in parish policies and the need for capital improvements in the cemeteries.

One concern that emerged from the meeting was that not all Catholics who want a funeral Mass and Christian burial when they die can depend on surviving family members to carry out those wishes. This is a growing phenomenon throughout the country. Bishop Caggiano said the diocese would explore developing a system that would pre-plan funeral rites so there is no confusion about what the deceased wanted and their wishes would be fulfilled.

In response to one question, Bishop Caggiano pointed out that according to Canon Law no one can be denied a Christian burial if he or she is baptized. The deceased does not have to be a registered parishioner in a church. Another area of concern was eulogies during the service. The directors said practices vary from church to church. While the Order of Christian Funerals, which outlines the funeral and burial rites of the church, does not permit eulogies, “words of remembrance” may be offered after Communion.

Looking ahead, the Bishop said one of his goals is for every parish to have a bereavement group, a team of lay ministers, who are trained to offer care and compassion for those suffering loss and grief during the days and weeks after the funeral.

Bishop Caggiano said he wants the Diocese and its 82 pastors to move toward a “commonality of practices” and that the development of the sacramental norms will facilitate reaching that goal.

The management of the Catholic cemeteries in the diocese recently changed, and the Bishop told the group it will take several years to achieve the standard of quality he wants. “The cemeteries are part of a pastoral mission of the Church and a pastoral outreach to the bereaved,” he said. “And I want to imagine what the whole ministry of bereavement should look like and what it means for people.” Bishop Caggiano told the group his primary concern is “that when a person comes into our cemeteries, it should be an inviting, welcoming, prayerful, respectful place because it is sacred ground.”

Each year in the nine Catholic cemeteries, there are 1,800 burials and 3,500 funerals. The directors estimated that half of the services are traditional and the other half consists of a wide variety of possibilities from no service at all to a cremation with no burial.

“Everybody wants to do their own thing,” one director said, adding that many people don’t know what the rules of the Church are or understand their significance. “That is a major concern for us,” the Bishop said. A recent letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith titled, “Ad resurgendum cum Christo” (“To rise with Christ”), said that if a family chooses cremation, the cremains must be buried in a sacred place such as a Catholic cemetery or crypt and not displayed in a home. Ashes are not to be scattered or divided among family members or friends out of respect for the human dignity of the decreased. The instructions reaffirm the Catholic belief in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body.

Frank Spodnick, who last year was appointed the director of Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services, told the group he plans to improve the diocesan cemeteries and provide more training for those who work in the system.

Spodnick cited several projects he has undertaken to rehabilitate facilities and said funds have been approved to improve the infrastructure. In addition, he said, “We are responding almost weekly to the needs of the less fortunate.” Monsignor Powers said he was pleased with the meeting. “This is the first time in the history of the Diocese that all funeral directors were invited to share their ideas with the Bishop,” he said. “It is important because we as a Church collaborate with them, and they are on the front lines and are often the first to meet with a family who has lost a loved one. We must depend upon each other to have common practices and goals.”