by Jill Ragar Esfeld
LEAWOOD — For many years before he became a priest, Father Richard Storey, pastor of Curé of Ars here, was a funeral director.
He knows death well.
And through all his years of dealing with death up close, he has learned to view it as a journey to joy.
He only wishes everyone could see it that way.
“Death has never scared me,” he said. “It is an embraceable friend.”
Father Storey encourages Catholics to bury the dead not only as a work of mercy, but as a way of experiencing the promise of life — because he believes every funeral Mass encapsulates the Easter Triduum.
“Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Saturday, it all comes together,” he said. “We’ve been through the suffering and now [God is] going to lead us to the resurrection.
“The hope and the truth and the promise that a Catholic funeral Mass brings is incomparable.
“Catholics bury the dead so well.”
Father Storey also believes every funeral Mass is an opportunity for parishioners to come together as a loving community in Christ.
When a Curé of Ars parishioner died recently, his family felt certain no one would attend his funeral.
“He was a young gentleman, who lived in a group home,” said Father Storey. “His dad said, ‘I don’t think there will be anybody here — he didn’t even talk.’
“And so I put the word out and said, ‘Please come.’”
This was not unusual for Father Storey. He sets up a calling tree at his parishes to let parishioners know about funerals they may want to attend as a supportive community.
And members who think no one will show up to the funeral of their loved ones often find a church full of fellow parishioners.
“It’s about us coming together as a parish,” said Father Storey. “I don’t need to know that person to know I’m still part of one body, and Christ is our head.
“What a beautiful gift from God to say it’s a corporal work of mercy — to bury the dead.”
This work of mercy has always had a special place in Father Storey’s heart.
“Even when I was young,” he said, “I realized the world stopped when somebody died, and everyone gave due respect for that life.”
Growing up in a large extended family, Father Storey attended many funerals and remembers them as occasions of joy.
“You saw the fun in it because you would see family members,” he said. “And what I remember is celebrating more life than death.”
As a young man, Father Storey began working at a funeral home in Louisburg, answering phones and doing odd jobs, gradually taking on more responsibility.
Eventually, he went to mortuary school in Kansas City, Kansas, and took over the business as funeral director.
“I always thought about going to the seminary,” he said. “But this seemed like a pretty good alternative as well.”
Looking back, he sees the Lord’s hand in it.
“I think it was God’s way of saying, ‘Not now,’” he said. “For whatever he had going, he knew I needed this to get to where I am now.”
Father Storey realized God was finally calling him to the priesthood one day while he attending a Baptist funeral.
“I was in a very small town in Missouri,” he recalled. “And I can remember the talk started with: ‘We’re here to celebrate Larry’s life. But we must be warned that Larry never took on Christ as his personal savior. Do we want to be like that?’
“And I thought, ‘Well, there’s no hope in that.’”
The attitude didn’t match his experience as a Catholic.
“Working so many funeral Masses as a funeral director and serving them as an altar server,” he said, “[I felt] the whole Mass is hope — it is absolute, tremendous hope.”
Father Storey actually walked out of that Baptist service.
“I wasn’t mad or anything,” he said. “But I thought I’m just going to go outside because this is not good, it’s not hopeful.
“And exactly at that point — it was as good as the lights coming on in a dark room — [I felt God saying,] ‘I’m calling you!’”
“I felt it always, I knew it then,” he added. “And I’ve always had a great love for the Baptists because of that.”
On May 29, 2004, at the age of 33, Father Storey was ordained and immediately assigned as pastor to three parishes in Osage County.
At that point, said Father Storey, he was then “at the front line” — taking care of all those who were dying and their funerals.
“What was amazing to me was everything I learned in the funeral industry was the best lesson in how to be a good pastor,” he said.
Father Storey sees funerals as an opportunity for evangelization.
“You have people coming that maybe haven’t been to church for some time,” he said. “They lose a loved one, and coming back to the funeral Mass, they see how beautiful it is because it’s focused on the hope of resurrection.”
And that often leads people to contemplate their own resurrection.
“One thing that many people will ask in the dying process is: ‘How will I know that I’m going to get there?’” said Father Storey. “‘What do I need to do? I’m searching for that peace.’”
“You’ve got to let it go and let God now lead you” is what he tells them.
Father Storey has two favorite Scripture passages — one you hear at weddings all the time and the other you hear at funerals.
To him, they go hand in hand.
“And that is Corinthians (1 Cor 13:4, 8),” he said. “Love is patient, love is kind. . . . Love never fails.”
“You never bury love,” he continued. “It goes with the soul. And then one day, all that love is going to reunite.
“And that’s what gives me hope.”
The second passage is from Chapter 14 of the Gospel of John.
“[At] the Last Supper,” said Father Storey, “Christ says [to his apostles], ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God, now have faith in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not true, would I have told you I’m going to prepare a place for you, and I’ll come back and take you to myself.’”
“That is the most beautiful Scripture for a funeral as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
“Life has changed, not ended,” he added. “None of us know when we’re going.
“But Jesus says, ‘Do not be afraid,’ over and over and over.”