Burying the Dead – a corporal work of mercy
If you were to imagine what a Parish Bereavement Team might do, and look like, I wouldn’t be surprised if you pictured a bunch of older ladies supplying casseroles and cakes to the family of the deceased. Well, in this case, that would be far from the whole picture.
The Bereavement Team from Queanbeyan Parish in NSW, are professional, dedicated and compassionate in the many ways they support those who are dealing with the grief of the death of a loved one. In some cases the team has ‘travelled’ with the person on the last stage of their earthly journey, and they then commit to walking with the family for “as long as it takes”.
‘Burying the dead’ is one of the corporal works of mercy which the Pope has suggested as a way we can respond to the Jubilee Year of Mercy. However, Queanbeyan Parish did not need the Pope to initiate such an outreach to the community. It was Fr Peter Day who, almost 10 years ago, tapped Chris Haines on the shoulder and asked would she lead a small team to care for the bereaved. The team sought professional advice on how to offer this specific type of pastoral care. Initially they were involved in visitation and sending cards on the first anniversary of the death. By the time Fr Troy Bobbin arrived, and in recent years, the team’s ministry has grown considerably. When necessary, they now assist families in preparing the liturgy, they will help with parts of the funeral if the family feels unable to do so, they lead prayers at the graveside, conduct an annual memorial prayer service and visit the families as required. They are well formed in the liturgical rites, adhere to the requirements of working with vulnerable people and deal effectively with, and are respected by, the various funeral directors.
The following stories of four of the team members are laced with humour and compassion. They are sure to inspire.
Chris experienced first hand, some years ago, what it was like to see someone have to carry the grief of the death of a loved one without the support of a community. When her brother-in-law died, her sister was living in a large regional town. The children and family members were of course supportive. But after a while they returned to their own towns, and Chris’ sister was left very much on her own. Seeing the devastating affect this had on her sister, gave Chris the momentum to ensure that people in her own community would not suffer a similar loneliness.
Chris and her husband are community people. Chris’ husband has been Assistant Co-ordinator at the local Men’s Shed for years and also picks up the domestic duties when she is tied up with a funeral. Chris echoes the parish priest’s words about the importance of parish members caring for the bereaved: “It takes a community to raise a child, and it takes a community to bury the dead”.
Chris sets the bar high in ensuring the support that is offered is professional, and compassionate. She sometimes feels a little nervous when the initial contact is made. But this nervousness is soon forgotten once she senses the relief in the voices of family members, as they realise they don’t have to do this alone.
The annual memorial service is one of the highlights in this ministry. Families who have lost loved ones are invited each year to a special liturgy that is prepared by the team, for the people. The bereaved participate by joining in the prayers, writing the name of their loved one in the memorial book, lighting a candle for the person and then taking a flower in memory of him or her. A simple cuppa follows, and attendees are able to share their stories with others on similar journeys.
Chris says it can be hard sometimes to keep one’s emotions under control while people are audibly upset, but she keeps her focus on supporting the family. She also keeps forefront in her mind her great belief that the deceased is on their way home to Jesus.
If you are interested in learning more about how a Bereavement Team could operate in your parish, then please contact Chris Haines via the Queanbeyan Parish Office – 6299 4611.
Bereavement Team from Queanbeyan Parish in NSW
Originally from Sydney, Ann joined the Queanbeyan parish and was keen to get involved in the community. However, she wanted to do something more than just attend Mass. Although Ann’s gifts lay in administration, she was keen to take up a pastoral care ministry. So when the opportunity emerged to join the Bereavement Team she readily accepted.
When she discussed the new ministry with her husband he just looked at her and said good humouredly, “you could have picked something a bit more cheerful.” Ann’s role in the team is more behind the scenes. She likes the fact that each team member knows what their role is, and there is genuine support for each other. Some funerals can be particularly sad, especially if it is the death of a young person or someone well known in the parish community. Ann is very conscious that team members are always “looking after each other”.
Ann has a wise view of grief. She says that we all grieve in different ways and about a variety of matters. Suffering can take many forms, and the team’s role is not to judge or determine how a person should grieve. They just need to be there in their respective roles and “go with the flow”.
Ann says there is joy in being able to reach out to people in their time of loss, but she also believes that Jesus calls us constantly to be reaching out to others, at the church or in the supermarket, with kindness. A smile or a friendly nod is a simple gesture that can truly lift someone’s spirit.
David is married, with four adult children and a growing brood of grandchildren. He felt a strong yearning to be part of the bereavement team. At first his family thought he was a bit crazy about his desire to deal with death at such close quarters. Yet, when they have attended a funeral and seen their dad in action, they see how special this ministry is to him.
David has had enough ups-and-downs in his own family life to know that we must not be judgmental of others. People will want to express their grief in a particular way that usually befits the way the deceased lived. This has to be respected, but there is also a need to ensure the sacredness of the liturgy is upheld.
Some funerals are really tough. David recalls watching the children of a young dad whose funeral he was assisting with. At the commendation at the cemetery he admits he struggled looking at the children as the casket was gently lowered into the ground. David just wanted their pain to go away. So he gave them some jobs to do and they responded generously. David understood the value of the sacred rites in helping the bereaved deal with their loss.
David is often overwhelmed by the gratefulness of the people they assist. It gives him great satisfaction when he meets them down the street some months later and they acknowledge how thankful they are for the support they were given.
Gretchen is no stranger to sadness, having buried her husband, son and mother in recent years. It was after her mother’s death, and experiencing the great warmth of the parish community, that she easily accepted the invitation to join the team. She strongly felt the need to give back to the community, in return for the kindness she had been shown.
Even though some of her friends think she is a bit macabre in wanting to be part of a ministry so closely linked to death, she finds it gives her a deep satisfaction. But how does she cope with other people’s grief, given her own intense experience. She is quite clear in her response. Whilst she feels a deep empathy for those grieving, she does not allow herself to be married into their grief.
Gretchen, as one of the newest team members, has already assisted with some of the main parts of the funeral service when the family has felt unable to do so. She did feel nervous about getting the words right, or forgetting something. However, Fr Troy gives positive feedback and encouragement to everyone, and he always checks in after a funeral to make sure they are OK.
Gretchen sees a strong link with the Pope’s call for mercy and what the team is doing. “It’s simple”, she says. “God is love, and we are meant to love each other, and mercy is a part of that – that’s the only reason we are on earth, there is no other purpose”.
By Sharon Brewer