WASHINGTON — Confusion about the Catholic Church’s current funeral practices is common, as evidenced by a wave of discussion over whether Sen. Edward Kennedy should have had a Catholic funeral because of his public disagreement with the church’s teaching against abortion.
Fr. John Dietzen, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., who has for nearly 35 years fielded questions from the public about the church, told Catholic News Service he receives many queries about who can and cannot have a church funeral. Many of those questions are rooted in practices that have long since gone by the wayside, he said.
Fr. Dietzen, who has written the “Question Corner” column for CNS since 1975, said the most common funeral-related topic he hears about is suicide.
The commentary with the Code of Canon Law says that people in irregular marriages or people who committed suicide are not included among those who are automatically denied funerals, “since deprivation of a church funeral not infrequently causes as much if not more scandal than granting it.”
The church also has changed its thinking about cremation. “Cremation formerly was forbidden by
the Catholic Church (and some other Christian denominations) because anti-Christian groups, especially in Europe, promoted it as a symbolic rejection of Christian belief in the immortality of the
soul and the resurrection,” he explained in one article. “For decades now, the church has no longer prohibited the practice, provided it is not chosen in disrespect for Christian faith or beliefs.”
The deaths of notorious mobsters have raised the question of whether they should have Catholic funerals as well. Convicted mobster John Gotti was refused a funeral Mass after his death in 2002. Gotti had been sentenced in 1992 to life without parole on charges of racketeering, obstruction of justice, murder in the aid of racketeering, operating an illegal gambling business and witness-tampering.
“The bottom line is, it’s up to the bishop” to decide cases where there is clear doubt about whether someone should be given a Catholic funeral, said Fr. Dietzen.
Other confusion often involves “things that were unthought of 50 years ago, like the fact that you can have a funeral Mass for a non-Catholic” under certain circumstances, he said.
That might happen, for instance, for somebody who was in the process of becoming a Catholic at the time of death or the spouse of a practicing Catholic who had no church affiliation.
“There is more recognition of the limitations of knowledge of what motivates people in their relationship with God,” Fr. Dietzen said. “We recognize that we don’t know. And we give every possible benefit of the doubt in saying this person is still a part of the church’s prayers.”
“We don’t know what happened with that person’s relationship with God and the church. It could be that something happened within the last few hours before death. And that’s what counts,” he said.