Folk Artist: Funeral of a Sister
I want to speak about the final Vocation Call of the Sisters whom I have known. Together we walk one another home to heaven. We do this in the funeral Mass as we celebrate the deceased Sister’s life.
When one of our Sisters is close to death, our whole religious community is notified by e-mail or phone call. During her final days she is not left alone and Sisters will sit alongside her with prayers, hymns and comfort. This “spiritual” work of mercy is mutually comforting. When the Sister dies, the larger community is notified that funeral arrangements are being made. Her family members are told so they can make plans to come for the funeral. Her family is hosted at our Salvatorian Sisters Residence, the home for our retired members. In their loss as well as ours, the loving hospitality at SSR creates a supportive, family atmosphere.
Often the deceased Sister chose another Sister to prepare a homily or reflection on her life for the Mass, usually a member who knew the deceased Sister well. The funeral service begins with a remembering service for family members, Sisters and friends gathered in the church to tell anecdotes from the Sister’s life. These shared memories can be humorous and often they bring liveliness to the gathering. All the remarks point to the faithfulness and the bonds she had with her family, the affection her friends felt for her, and the full human life that is now completed. Afterwards, the pall-bearers process with the coffin to the front of the church.
The choir composed of Sisters and friends sing hymns chosen before the Sister’s death if she expressed her wishes. She also may have chosen the Scripture passages read by family members or Sisters during Mass. After a Sister gives the homily or reflection, the offertory petitions give gratitude for the persons who assisted the Sister in her final months of life, including the medical staff, Sisters with whom she lived, and family members — both living and deceased. If she served at an international level, people in those countries are also remembered, as well as her service to our larger Congregation. The words we use to profess and renew our vows are especially poignant: “O Lord, complete what you have begun in me!” Now is the hour God has completed the work in the holy life of this Sister.
At the end of Mass when the body is taken away for burial, there is a final gesture that is rich with symbolism. Our Provincial Leader steps forward to incense the Sister’s body. In all of our Sisters’ names, she is leader who accepts the vows made when the deceased member was a young professed Sister; she has accepted her obedience to the mission and ministries throughout the Sister’s life; she has walked with her during her illness, and now she completes the entire life journey the Sister has made among us all. It is an act of great Blessing and these words are spoken:
“Sister has gone to rest in the peace of Christ.”
“O God, we give our Sister who is a faithful daughter to your loving embrace. Welcome her to your presence and count her among your Saints in glory.”
When incensing of the body is completed, the coffin is taken to the back of the church and the gathered community turns together as a symbol of our “letting go” into the arms of Christ who welcomes her. It is a poignant moment.
If someone has little familiarity with the death of a loved one, the opportunity to take part in the funeral service of a Sister brings a comforting, yet powerful experience of sadness and joy, loss, and hope for “eternal life” of companionship and blessings on the faithful life of our members. You are always welcome to join us.
by Sr. Karlyn Cauley, SDS