Googley: A Look at the Ritual of Funerals By: Maureen McGuinness

When my oldest daughter was in first grade, her beloved goldfish Googley died. Googley was one of those famous NiskaDay fish. When she proudly brought him home two years before, I gave him three days at most. But this fish with one giant eye and one normal sized eye flourished under the care that Kate and her father gave it. They purchased a proper fish tank and fed it precise amounts of food. Her father cleaned the tank on a regular basis. (I learned one day that my good salad bowl was used as Googley’s temporary playground on cleaning days!)

While I never bonded with Googley, Kate did. She took comfort in the glow of the light of his tank as she drifted to sleep. At other times she just enjoyed watching him.

Then one day it happened. Googley died. While I thought, “It’s just a goldfish,” her thoughts were different. She wanted to know when we were going to Gleason Funeral Home and when the Mass would be.

Even at the age of 6, she had the need for ritual and community support. While Googley didn’t have the benefit of the Order of Christian Funerals, we did provide Kate with ritual and support. Her friends and grandmothers came over. We lit her baptismal candle, and we wrote memories of Googley on fish shaped paper and pasted it to a larger fish poster. Her friends told her that their Grandfather who had died was taking care of Googley now in heaven. We prayed together. Then we ate goldfish shaped crackers.  While Kate was still sad that Googley had died, she appreciated that her friends, neighbors and grandmothers came and made a poster, shared stories, prayed, and ate with her.

Now I am involved in funeral ministry. I assist families as they are planning their funerals. One of the interesting challenges I find in working with families who are preplanning are those who have decided to forgo parts of the Order of Christian Funerals.

It is common to hear a person say that they aren’t planning on having calling hours or the vigil. There are many reasons we hear this. One of the most common is that they don’t like to go to wakes, so they don’t want others to have to go. I doubt that anyone likes to go to wakes.  However, when you are the one who is grieving and you hear a little story about your loved one that you wouldn’t have known otherwise, it makes a big difference that people came. As Catholics, we are called to gently accompany the mourners. When you have been on the receiving end of support provided during the wake, you would never consider taking that away from your loved ones.

The calling hours are a time that pictures, videos, favorite songs, and stories can be shared. It can be a time of both laughter and tears.

When my marriage ended, I wanted a wake. I wanted everyone to know that my family as I knew it was no more. I needed the kind words and support. I got the casseroles. Friends showed up with meals to see the girls and I through the early days. However, I went through what people who forgo calling hours talk about and that is going to the grocery store. You just want to run into the store and get some milk and bread and you run into someone that says, “I heard about… and I’m really sorry.” One family I worked with over a funeral who didn’t have a wake said, “I wish I had known how many people my mom had known and wanted to share stories with me. Every time I go to the store someone stops me. In a way I think I did THEM a disservice.”

At times we hear from people that aren’t going to have a funeral Mass; instead, they are going to have a celebration of life. In the early years of the Church, Christians joyfully praised God even as they experienced great sorrow at the death of their loved ones. While it is important to celebrate the life the deceased lived, that portion could be done the night before during the vigil.

For centuries, the bereaved have taken comfort in the funeral liturgy. The parish priest and bereavement ministers are able to help the family of the deceased with their spiritual and psychological needs. The Mass is one way to accept the reality of death, and comfort one another.

There will be a funeral Mass for me when I go. I’m not taking any chances. I’m human, I’m not perfect. I need a few extra prayers to make it into heaven. And heck, if you want to remember me every year on All Souls Day that would be appreciated too!

The final portion of the Order of Christian Funerals that some people choose to eliminate is the committal. For families that choose cremation, many believe that committal is optional. While the Church has allowed cremation since 1963, its teaching still calls for cremated remains to be given the same respect casketed remains are given. Keeping cremated remains at home presents a unique challenge. What happens to the cremated remains you have kept at home when you die? Who will get them? Do they want them? There are many permanent options for the burial of cremated remains. These allow for memorialization so that future generations can know you were here.

When my youngest lost her beloved hamster Gumball, we went out to dinner with friends to Ferrari’s Restaurant. We prayed, shared stories about pets and people we lost. Mrs. Ferrari sat down, brought the girls dessert and talked about the love of a pet and God’s love. Again, it didn’t make Mary-Margaret’s pain any less, but the ritual was a starting place for her grief.

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3 responses

  1. Well said, Maureen. I don’t enjoy going to wakes, but I’ll often go for people I know because I’ll never forget the experience of my father’s wake. I was blown away by the outpouring of love and support and seeing how many people had been touched by his life. It’s strange to say it, but I actually kind of enjoyed dad’s wake.

  2. Maureen, I too really appreciate this. Being Irish I actually LIKE wakes – my first three childhood wakes were in homes. Both my grandparents were “laid out” in our home. It was important to me at age 10/11 (they passed within 6 months of each other) to say goodbye to them. As a teen losing our dad unexpectedly, my sibs and I were numb and most can’t recall the event. So for 50 years I’ve treasured hearing, often accidentally, what he meant to people. My mom’s wake was comforting, a testament to how a small town appreciated her even as a teen, then as teacher, union leader, community activist, a mother of 6 kids giving back in various ways. Sadly, the new priest did not know her nor how to speak about her, another reason I’m grateful for the present-day work of funeral ministries. Thank you for honoring how important a concern this is for us all. I so appreciate how beautifully liturgical funerals are at St. Kateri’s.

  3. Thank you for this post… so powerful. The importance of ritual can’t be underestimated. I totally understand the pain and avoidance of not wanting to deal with death; but as one who works in a related field, I see how ritual can change everything.

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