Funeral practices in communities across the country are evolving thanks to Covid and the decline in priest numbers.
Increasingly, our guests see lay funeral ministers leading funeral services for their loved ones. When elderly priests were forced to hole up during the pandemic, they turned to lay clergy to help grieving families.
Now the stark reality of the declining and aging profile of Irish priests has raised the prospect of priestless funerals, Father Aquinas Duffy told the Irish Independent last month.
In the Diocese of Cork and Ross, which announced this week that it will reorganize itself into sixteen “Families of Parishes,” lay funeral chaplains have been active in the parishes for well over a decade, and about two-thirds of the parishes have people caring for the leadership of prayer are trained .
Maura O’Flynn is one of the lay funeral ministers in the parish of Bantry and is also part of the diocesan formation team that trains men and women in funeral ministers.
She told that Irish Independent that parish funeral teams number between four and 14 people and that two people usually pray together at each funeral.
Before Covid, funeral practices included the performance of a rosary, a procession, the funeral mass and the burial. During Covid this was reduced to the funeral mass and funeral because people could not gather.
Now, in many cases, prayers that the minister would have offered on leaving the church are held by lay preachers rather than at the wake or funeral home, with ministers now also leading funeral prayers at the grave.
“Now we have just one evening of visiting, followed by a public prayer led by the lay burial team,” Ms. O’Flynn said.
Most parishes have a funeral coordinator, who is a lay person who is contacted by the undertaker or priest and who then arranges for the team on duty to lead the funeral prayers.
Ms O’Flynn said: “The attitude and mindset of the priest is critical to how the community accepts funeral ministry. Some parishes have taken up this ministry very well, others have been slower to do so.”
She believes the involvement of lay funeral officials is a return to previous practice.
“We used to hold a wake at the home of the deceased, where neighbors and friends gathered around the bereaved and offered practical and prayerful support. Someone, or sometimes a few people, led the prayers and rosary.”
Michael O’Leary (57) from Ballincollig Parish in Cork agrees. The father of two, who works as an electrician, told the Irish Independent that his grandmother inspired him to become involved in his community funeral services team.
“I can remember 40 to 45 years ago when a neighbor died, my grandmother helped to lay the person out and prepare him for the wake. Lay people gathered and prayed for two evenings and prepared food. The priest took part in the funeral mass.”
Ms O’Flynn, who has been funerals secretary for eight years, admits she initially had concerns about whether or not she would be accepted.
“So far we haven’t received any negative feedback and this seems to be the general consensus across teams. What we find is that families have many questions for us about what they can and cannot do. People say it’s good to see a layman leading the prayer, and especially a woman leading the prayers.”
Mr. O’Leary trained in funeral services in 2010 at the suggestion of his then vicar. He now coordinates Ballincollig’s funeral team, which serves a population of 25,000. Each team works in pairs so everyone has support. The service is voluntary and ministers juggle it with work and family commitments.
“Since last October we’ve had 65 to 70 funerals,” Mr O’Leary said.
Presiding at funerals is still an exception for lay clergy in Ballincollig, but it is done in other parishes where there is a shortage of priests.
To date, Mrs O’Flynn has not led any funeral prayers in Bantry. “If I did that, I would say exactly the same prayers as the priest. There is a set liturgy that can be conducted by a priest or a lay person.”
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