Kristen L. Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian

One day in 2018, a pregnant mother went into labor and delivered quintuplets. It should have been a happy day of smiles and balloons, but it was not. Two of the children were stillborn and the other three lived just long enough to be held and baptized. All were loved, but all were lost. The parents were suddenly faced with the unimaginable task of burying their babies. Who could possibly comfort them? And how? 

For the past three years, this has been Deacon Edward Handel’s mission. He is the director of cemeteries for the Diocese of Richmond’s Office of Cemeteries/ Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services (CFCS) Richmond, a post he admits he never wanted but now embraces as part of God’s calling. It is his job to provide support and assistance to families as they prepare to lay their loved ones to rest. 

At first he thought he didn’t possess the compassion necessary to console grieving families, but he soon learned differently. 

“It is a ministry that is surrounded by a combination of sorrow and joy. Sorrow for the loss of a loved one, but at the same time the joy of remembering their loved ones as the people they were,” he said.

The quintuplets’ deaths could have easily destroyed any family, but Deacon Handel remembers the strength the parents had during a time of such pain. 

“What moved me the most was how strong the parents were,” he said, “They showed that Christ was working through them and that he was there to support them. They provided an insight to me about dealing with this situation I had not thought of.” 

The family appreciated Deacon Handel’s help in coordinating everything and his understanding that they wanted to have five separate coffins so each child would be remembered as an individual, but all sharing the same grave as they shared their mother’s womb. It is with this memory of familial strength that he finds the strength to carry on his work.

In 2014, Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo asked Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services (CFCS) to assess the status of all of the burial sites in the diocese. There are more than 60 Catholic cemeteries, columbaria and mausoleums in the diocese, some of which have been operating for more than 150 years. CFCS found many policy and procedural inconsistencies among the sites and some were not being properly maintained. This led to the creation of the Office of Cemeteries in 2016, and Deacon Handel has been at the helm ever since. 

Three rites to the Catholic funeral

The Order of Christian Funerals states that, “At the death of a Christian, whose life of faith was begun in the waters of baptism and strengthened at the eucharistic table, the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end, nor does it break the bonds forged in life.” 

Therefore, the Catholic faith and its emphasis on ritual play are an integral part in how Catholics commemorate the death of a loved one.

“When we are baptized, our bodies become a sacred vessel. Our souls have been consecrated to God through baptism, and just like any vessel, the vessel needs to be taken care of in a respectful way,” Deacon Handel said. 

The ground of a Catholic cemetery is consecrated by a bishop, making it permanently sacred ground. As such, the land offers a level of reverence and respect for the body and the soul that might not be found in other cemeteries.

The Order of Christian Funerals consists of three rites: the vigil, funeral liturgy and committal. CFCS-managed sites, as well as parish funeral staff, provide advice and assistance in coordinating the three rites.

The vigil is perhaps the most intimate element. This is where family and friends gather to remember the lost, support the remaining and grieve together. It is a time to share stories and reminisce. Along with Scripture and other readings, it is recommended that eulogies are spoken during the vigil. 

The funeral liturgy is usually a Mass with the body present, steeped in ritual and symbolism that have remained steadfast for centuries. Through proclamation of Scripture and the homily, those present are reminded of Jesus’ resurrection, and, as The Order of Christian Funerals states, “to tell of God’s designs for a world in which suffering and death will relinquish their hold on all whom God has called his own.” 

The funeral procession is important, as the deceased, family members and clergy are led to the altar by the cross. Songs are sung, as music is an expressive form of prayer that should connect on an emotional and spiritual level with those who sing. The celebration of the Eucharist symbolizes the union of the Church — on earth and in heaven, of the living and the dead.

Essential religious symbols, such as the Easter candle, holy water and incense are used during the Mass. The Easter candle represents the death and resurrection of Christ. Holy water represents baptism, which can be considered the beginning of one’s relationship with the Church and is recalled each time one blesses themselves or are blessed by it. Incense is used to honor the body. Non-Catholic attendees are given the chance to better understand the faith of the deceased, and all present can bear witness to God’s love and care of the departed.

The committal is where loved ones say goodbye, and the deceased are then committed to their final resting place, whether that be in a cemetery, columbarium or mausoleum. Final prayers, thoughts and hymns are welcome to help the family find peace.

Support for the family 

This is a challenging process for families and friends, but they don’t go through it alone. When a Catholic funeral is chosen, they have help every step along the way, with God and the deceased at the center. 

Sister Pat McCarthy, a Sister of Christian Community, at St. Mary Church, Richmond, is usually the first contact for families planning the funeral of a loved one at that parish. She also acts as a liaison between the parish and the funeral home. 

“Each family is unique in what they are going through,” she said. “I am there to listen to them, invite them to share their memories, provide spiritual support, and then work with them on what they are asking of the church for the service.” 

She and the rest of the “funeral team” work together to schedule the event, create funeral programs and worship aids, and set up for the service. St. Mary has a columbarium, so if the deceased is being committed there, necessary preparations are made. 

The pastor, Father Michael Renninger, meets with each family to learn more about the deceased and develops a homily tailored to them and their family. 

While Sister Pat has been doing this for many years, she said, “I am always blessed by each encounter, and hopefully I have become more open and compassionate through the years.  I am always amazed at how God is working in the lives of all those I meet, and how God is present with us at the very moment that these families are experiencing a very significant loss in the life of their family.”

Why one should plan 

CFCS encourages people to make preparations now. 

“At the time of death there are many emotions and thoughts running through the minds of those left behind. During this time, if things were not pre-planned, can be one of the most stressful times in their lives,” said Deacon Handel. “One of the benefits of planning all of this ahead of time is your loved ones will have peace of mind that will allow them to begin their true grieving period a little sooner.” 

While confronting one’s own mortality is not a pleasant experience, it can help alleviate some stress. If it is preplanned, people will be sure that their funerals are celebrated as they wished, with hymns and readings that are significant to them. Another reason to plan early is that while funeral and burial prices increase every year, preplanning guarantees prices will not increase no matter how much time passes in between.

Even with locking in prices, that cost can sometimes be too much for some to bear. CFCS doesn’t want cost to be a hindrance to a proper burial, according to Deacon Handel. It offers two programs offered that can help those in need.

The Mother Teresa program provides a Christian funeral and burial at no charge to the family or the parish. It is available to members of the community, as well as victims of violent crimes. The All Souls Remembrance program is a similar opportunity for those who are cremated. (See accompanying story). It is open to people of all faiths. Both programs guarantee permanent interment on sacred ground.

No matter the situation, the Church and CFCS will work with each case to provide the best care, support and guidance at this emotional and vulnerable time. Most importantly, there is a constant reminder that God is with them on this journey. 

Editor’s note: For information about Catholic cemeteries in the Diocese of Richmond, contact Deacon Ed Handel at 757-229-0851 or email ehandel@richmonddiocese.org.

 

‘Do not be afraid’

Editor’s note: Father Sean Prince, director of the diocesan Office of Worship, shared the following story with The Catholic Virginian.

“I was called to the hospital one night to anoint a young man in his 20s; they were about to remove him from life support. As I was driving to the hospital, I experienced a great deal of anxiety. ‘Lord, what are you sending me into tonight?’ 

“When I arrived, the young man was awake and extremely frail and thin. His body was slowly shutting down. He could not speak, but only slowly move his head. His eyes were open; he was as alert as he could be. 

“As I approached him, I placed my left hand on his head and grasped his hand with my right. And as I rubbed his head, I looked into his eyes, and before I could introduce myself, the young man’s eyes removed whatever fear I had. 

“He looked up at me, smiled very slightly with all the strength he had, and said through his eyes, ‘Father, I am at peace. Father, I am not afraid.’ 

“Such at its most profound is the Christian theology of death: ‘Do not be afraid.’ That night, that young man taught me more about death than any theology book, any pastoral counseling text can. This young man approached death not with enthusiasm but readiness; not with surrender but a love-laden yes. 

“How profound it can be when a parent says it to a child, when a child to a parent, a young man to a priest, when it is the dying who can say it to the living: ‘Don’t be afraid!’”