Funeral practices in parishes up and down the country are evolving thanks to Covid and the decline in priest numbers.
Mourners are increasingly seeing lay funeral ministers lead their loved one’s obsequies. When elderly priests were forced to cocoon during the pandemic, they turned to lay ministers to help grieving families.
Now the stark reality of the declining and ageing profile of Irish priests has raised the prospect of priestless funerals, as Fr Aquinas Duffy told the Irish Independent last month.
In the Diocese of Cork and Ross, which this week announced it is restructuring itself into sixteen “Families of Parishes”, lay funeral ministers have been operating in parishes for well over a decade and roughly two-thirds of parishes have people trained to lead prayer.
Maura O’Flynn is one of the lay funeral ministers in Bantry parish and she also serves on the diocesan formation team which trains men and women for funeral ministry.
She told the Irish Independent that parish funeral teams comprise between four and 14 people and there is usually a rota of two people praying together at each funeral.
Before Covid, funeral practices involved the holding of a rosary, a removal, the funeral Mass and burial. During Covid this was pared back to just the funeral Mass and burial because people could not gather.
Now, in many cases prayers which would have been said by the parish priest at the removal in the church are led by lay ministers instead at the wake or in the funeral home with ministers also now leading burial prayers at the graveside.
“Now we have just one evening of visitation followed by public prayer which the lay funeral team leads,” Ms O’Flynn said.
Most parishes have a funeral team co-ordinator, who is a lay person, who the undertaker or priest contacts and they then arrange 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 parish embraces funeral ministry. Some parishes have embraced this ministry really well, others have come to it more slowly.”
She believes the involvement of lay funeral ministers is a return to past practice.
“We used to have a wake in the house of the deceased where neighbours and friends gathered around the bereaved family providing practical and prayerful support to them. Someone, or sometimes a few people, would lead the prayers and the Rosary.”
Michael O’Leary (57) from Ballincollig parish in Cork agrees. The father-of-two who works as an electrical contractor told the Irish Independent that what inspired him to get involved in his parish funeral ministry team was his grandmother.
“Going back 40 to 45 years ago I can remember when a neighbour passed away, my grandmother would help lay out the person and prepare for the wake. Lay people rallied around and prayed for two evenings and made food. The priest became involved at the funeral Mass.”
Ms O’Flynn, who has been a funeral minister for the past eight years, admits that at the start she had concerns around whether or not she would be accepted.
“To date we have not had any negative feedback, and this seems to be general consensus from all teams. What we do find is that families have many questions for us about what they can and can’t do. People say it is good to see a lay person leading prayer and particularly a female leading the prayers.”
Mr O’Leary trained for funeral ministry at the suggestion in 2010 of his then parish priest. He now co-ordinates Ballincollig’s funeral team which caters for a population of 25,000. Every team works in pairs, so that everyone has support. The ministry is voluntary and ministers juggle it with work and family commitments.
“Since last October we have had 65 to 70 funerals,” Mr O’Leary said.
Presiding at the burial still tends to be an exception for lay ministers in Ballincollig but it is happening in other parishes where priests are scarce.
To date, Ms O’Flynn has not presided at burial prayers in Bantry. “If I did, I would be saying the exact same prayers as the priest would. There is a set liturgy, and it can be led by a priest or a lay person.”