SAINT LUKE CATHOLIC CHURCH

49 Turkey Hill Road North, Westport, CT  06880

Phone (203) 227-7245   |   Fax (203) 226-8063

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  • Saint Luke Church, Westport CT
New Diocesan Funeral Norms

Guidelines for the Celebration of Funerals

Over the course of many months last year, the 2007 “Guidelines for the Celebration of Funerals in the Diocese of Bridgeport” (for which I was the principal author!) underwent a major review. The review process included consultations with the staffs of funeral homes and the clergy of the diocese.

In broad terms, the main reasons for this review were to assure that the celebrations of funerals in the parishes of our diocese were adhering to the official ritual books of the Church, and to address a number of “neuralgic” issues.

Among these issues are:

  1. participation in proclaiming the scriptures by family or friends of the deceased who are not trained in this ministry;

  2. the choice of music used at a funeral or memorial Mass;

  3. “eulogies”

  4. widely-varying fees that are charged by parishes.

 

I’ll share more information on these issues in this column in weeks to come. For now, I’ll start with number 4, since Bishop Frank has instructed all pastors to report their decisions to him by Wednesday, 22 January.

 

Background: Some parishes in the diocese are known to charge fees for funerals as high as $1,000+ for the celebration of a funeral. To be fair in the reporting, they have varying rationales for how those amounts are pre-determined, by including variously the services of musicians, singers, other parish staff, and a stipend for the priest who celebrates the Mass. (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a separate stipend would be added for the priest or deacon who would do a wake service or the cemetery committal service.)

 

The revised norms in this matter state the following:

D.9.1 With the promulgation of these norms, a standard parish offering for the celebration of funerals has been established whose amount cannot be less than $200 nor greater than $300 for the celebration of a Funeral Mass. The exact offering for each parish will be determined by the respective pastor.

  1. If the faithful, of their own free will, desire to give more that the parish offering, it can be accepted. If the faithful, of their own free will, are restricted in making the suggested parish offering or, of their own free will, give less than the suggested offering, it is also to be accepted.

  2. Under no circumstance can an offering greater than $300 be requested from the faithful for the celebration of any funeral.

 

Having consulted with the Pastoral Advisory Council at our meeting last Tuesday, 14 January 2020, I feel it best to opt for the lowest possible published “fee” that the Bishop will allow — $200.

 

In my 22 years here, we have never “charged a fee” for a funeral. It has always been my heartfelt conviction that a parish exists to serve generously the spiritual needs of its members, especially in the critical moments of our spiritual life-journeys. As long as I am pastor here at Saint Luke, I will always claim the right to waive this “required” fee for any family that is in financial straits, or when the circumstances of the death are particularly difficult.

 

Last week, I wrote about how some parishes charge pre- determined — and sometime quite sizeable — fees for funerals. Let me clarify a bit: the language of the new norms is meant to get parishes away from the negative connotations associated with the words “charge” or “fee” and move us all toward the understanding of a freewill offering to the parish. Accordingly, the amount that each parish is now required to publish for a funeral is a “suggested” or “recommended” offering, not a mandated fee.

 

What about the services (wake, Mass, cemetery) provided by the priest (and/or a deacon)? The new norms state the following:

 

D.9.5. — A family is always free to offer a personal stipend to the priest who celebrates the funeral, and he is free to accept it.

 

As long as we’re on the topic, permit me to voice another “pet peeve”: I have always “felt uneasy” about (“chafed against,” “embarrassed by,” etc.) priests who seem to expect handsome remuneration over and above their normal compensation for providing the priestly services for which we were ordained and assigned to a parish. My customary way of phrasing it: “Why else did we lay ourselves down on the floor at our ordination?” (This image refers to the way that the candidates for ordination prostrate themselves during the singing of the Litany of the Saints as a sign of their submission to God in service to the people of the Church.)

 

Main point: anything that you might choose to offer to the priest (or deacon) for his services at a funeral is your freewill choice. We are already compensated (adequately and modestly) for our services to the parish. (I’ll save further information on this for another time.) Some of the best expressions of thanks that I have received in my years have come via a beautiful note, a heartfelt hug, or a warm handshake.

Over the past two weeks, I have written about offerings to the parish church and to the clergy for the celebration of funerals. Today, we’ll move on to the question of the one thing that actually is a “fee” associated with the celebration of the funeral Mass: the compensation required for musicians.

Again, starting with the norms:

D.9 – STIPENDS

  1. Due to tax considerations, a separate fee can be charged for the services of a musician and/or cantor. Those fees will be established by each pastor and the check will be made directly to the respective musicians.

  2. [The] music fees ordinarily are communicated to the family by the funeral director.

 

The current standard for musicians in our area is $250 per service. It is proper courtesy that these fees be paid at the time of the service, customarily by the funeral director.

 

This leads us to consider a sensitive issue: the “Bench Fee.”

A parish music director’s compensation comprises a number of components. Here at Saint Luke, Leon Bernard’s compensation includes (1) a modest salary, (2) a gasoline allowance for his commutes between his home in West Hartford and here, and (3) first preference (“dibs,” so to say) on funerals and weddings.

 

When a family wants to hire other musicians in a way that excludes the staff musician of a church or synagogue, that staff musician is being unfairly deprived of a rightful portion of compensation. No pun intended, but this awkward situation is “compensated for” by the payment of what is called a “bench fee” to the staff musician prior to hiring other musicians. Fees with outside musicians are negotiated directly between the family and those musician(s).

Accordingly, in all fairness to Leon, and rooted in principles of Christian justice, families who wish to hire musicians in a way that excludes Leon will be required to pay a bench fee of $250 prior to the funeral. The same provision will apply to weddings celebrated here at Saint Luke.

PLEASE NOTE: this fee does not apply to cantors/soloists, since they are not parish employees.

EULOGIES

Truth be told, the structure of the Catholic funeral does not allow for “eulogies” per se. However, the ritual does allow for what it terms “Words (or Remarks) of Remembrance.”

Let’s begin with some text from the Norms:

D.10 – WORDS OF REMEMBRANCE

It is the decision of each pastor whether to permit words of remembrance during [...] Funeral Masses celebrated in his parish. If he makes the decision to forbid their use, he is asked to compose a written policy that explains his rationale, publish it on his parish’s website and inform the local funeral directors of his decision.

If words of remembrance are permitted, such words will be offered immediately before the final commendation begins, that is, immediately after the Prayer after Communion

Here at Saint Luke, we will continue to allow “Words of Remembrance” – BUT... what’s the difference between such “Words” and a “eulogy? 

First of all, the Greek roots of the word “eulogy” essentially mean “the good word” or “the word of praise.” In our day, a eulogy is generally understood to be an address by an individual chosen to recount (ideally!) the admirable deeds and qualities of the deceased for those gathered at the funeral. Nonetheless, let’s state right up front that a eulogy is difficult to define in format and practice.

 

But, consider the Norm (D.10.1):

Words of remembrance are not a eulogy. They are to provide the opportunity for the family to speak in loving remembrance of the deceased person’s characteristics which manifested their faith in God and how they attempted to live the Christian vocation to love God and neighbor as Christ taught us.

 

The main difference between two is found in the purpose and tone: a eulogy seeks to praise the deceased on a human level; “words of remembrance” are meant to praise and thank GOD for the life of the deceased in light of Norm D.10.1, above.

Blessings, "Mons"

Monsignor Andrew G. Varga