Parish’s funeral ministries help families on difficult day

From left, Janet O’Connell and Joan Van Welleghem, members of the choir, sign cards for a retiring choir member. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JOE BOLLIG

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

SHAWNEE — About three years ago, Kathy Dorman went to a funeral at her parish. After the committal rites at the cemetery, she and the other mourners returned to the parish for lunch.

What she found was impressive — and moving.

Members of the St. Joseph Parish funeral dinner ministry had prepared and served a wonderful lunch.

“I saw how it impacted families at a time when they’re going through a lot of grief and it’s hard to make decisions,” said Dorman. “This is a big thing to take up for the family, and I think St. Joseph Parish does a beautiful job.”

She decided to join the ministry.

On July 11, 2016, her father, Martin Wayne Regan, died, and she briefly switched roles — from giving to receiving the care. Only then did she fully appreciate the value of this bereavement ministry.

“It was such a gift to know that it was one less thing for us to do at a difficult time, and that we could have our friends and family here, and that everything would be done — and done well,” she said. “There was so much kindness and thoughtfulness extended by these ladies.”

It’s for the living

Funerals are not only — or even primarily — about the dead. As the bereavement (or funeral) ministry at St. Joseph Parish demonstrates, funerals are really about taking care of the living.

The first part is, of course, the funeral and burial liturgies, which are the responsibility of the parish clerics: pastor Father Michael Hawken, associate pastor Father Daniel Stover and Deacon Tom Mulvenon.

But beyond the sacramental and liturgical aspects, there are three more ministries: the card ministry, called Grace-Filled Greetings; the funeral- exclusive Resurrection Choir; and the funeral dinner ministry.

“What I have found is that our funeral ministries are a time to welcome people,” said Father Hawken. “A lot of times family members and friends of the deceased have been away from the church.”

The spirit of hospitality and welcome people are met with at St. Joseph, and an emphasis on the promise of the resurrection during the liturgies, can impact people tremendously, he said. This approach has even led people back to the church.

“Funerals are an occasion for people to reflect on their own mortality,” said Father Hawken. “When they come and hear about how people lived their calling in the Lord, and what the church has meant to them . . . it shows what’s really important, when all is said and done.”

Lapsed Catholics sometimes, he added, come to this realization: This is my faith and my tradition, and I want to be buried from the Catholic Church someday.

St. Joseph is a large and old parish. They average about a funeral a week, so the bereavement ministries keep busy. But, sometimes, they’re really busy.

“I remember when I was first assigned here,” said Father Hawken. “It was Advent, right before Christmas. We had 14 funerals in nine days. It amazed me. We would hold one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and the Resurrection Choir and the funeral dinner volunteers were here for them all. Talk about dedication! It was one after another.”

It’s almost like magic

 Deacon Mulvenon remembered one funeral that included visiting priests. Afterward, they commented on the large choir and the fantastic funeral dinner.

Was this some sort of special effort for the family of the deceased? they asked. They were amazed when Father Hawken told them, “No, this is what we do for everyone.”

And here’s the interesting aspect that’s often overlooked about the parish’s bereavement ministries: They are “on call.”

“It’s important to point out that you can never plan when a death is going to happen,” said Father Hawken. “How many times have these people been called on a moment’s notice to come in in two days time to sing for the liturgy or put on a luncheon?”

Hardly anyone outside of the ministry knows how much work is involved. But making the food appear as if by magic is a testimony to the efficiency and work of the volunteers.

When a funeral liturgy is planned at St. Joseph, the family is asked right off the bat if they want a funeral dinner.

Usually they do. When that’s the case, the funeral ministry committee swings into action. The team consists of Carol Manley, Charlene Hartley, Lynne Jaime and their leader, Charlotte Garbee.

The secret to the ministry’s success is planning, teamwork, division of labor and hard work.

First, the four women get the ball rolling by calling and sending emails to volunteers drawn from a list of 100 names. Some volunteer to work the dinner, while others make and drop off salads.

The number of volunteers who work at the actual dinner depends on the size of the expected crowd. Ditto for the number who will be asked to make and drop off salads.

The dinners take place in the parish hall, under the church. A group of four people set up all the tables and chairs.

All the desserts are donated by local businesses. Four individuals are responsible for picking up the donations and bringing them back to the church.

Funeral dinners feature a semistandard menu, but allow for variety, too.

The family is responsible for procuring meat and bread for the meal. Usually, they order it from a grocery store and have it delivered.

The ministry provides a fruit tray and four side dishes. Generally, Manley makes the green beans, Garbee makes the baked beans, and Jaime makes the scalloped potatoes. All these are prepared in the parish hall’s kitchen.

The ministry also provides beverages — coffee, tea, lemonade and water.

The parish does charge families for the funeral dinner and accepts donations to the ministry, but no family unable to pay is turned away.

When they can, the funeral dinner volunteers try to accommodate special requests. One family asked for candy dishes at all tables, and another wanted ice cream — because that was among the deceased’s final requests.

Done without a hitch — almost

Despite their best efforts, the funeral ministry sometimes runs into a glitch or two.

At one funeral, they expected 200 people, but more than 300 showed up.

“We accused Father Mike of putting out a sign that said ‘Free lunch here,’” laughed Garbee.

This was one of the rare occasions when they ran out of food — except for the entree, which was meat.

“I apologized to [a family member], but she said, ‘Don’t worry about it. The next time they’ll get in line earlier,’” said Garbee.

Another time, a local grocery store’s deli was late sending an order of sandwiches. And one other time, the meat portion of the meal didn’t show up at all. That required drastic action.

“There’s a barbecue place down the street,” said Garbee. “A [relative] called them and they had it here in 15 minutes.”

On a different occasion, another relative got on the phone and placed an extensive order to a nearby Go Chicken Go.

“We’re very fortunate that we haven’t had more times like this,” said Manley.

Funeral dinners are a great time for family members to grieve together, catch up and tell stories. It can almost be like a family reunion, albeit absent the guest of honor.

“It’s closure for the families,” said Garbee. “They don’t have to worry about feeding their families.”

And it doesn’t stop in the parish hall. If any food is left over, it’s boxed up and sent home with the family, so they can continue the gathering at a home.

“It helps with the grieving process,” said Jaime.

The funeral dinner volunteers generally begin just after 7 a.m. and finish with cleanup by the early afternoon.

One time, however, a family just didn’t want to leave.

“We told them, ‘We have to close up the church at 3 o’clock,’ and a woman said, ‘But we’re visiting,’” said Manley. “We told them, ‘You’re going to have to visit someplace else.’ So they just moved out into the hallway. Finally, we just shut off all the lights and locked the door.”

Sometimes, families themselves want to bring in special food. One family brought in so much food that extra tables had to be set up. They even stayed to help clean up afterward.

“A lot of times, unless they’ve come to the visitation the night before, people haven’t had a chance to visit or greet others,” said Father Hawken. “After they come back from the cemetery for the lunch, folks are able to connect with family and friends, celebrate their loved ones and console.”

St. Joseph parishioner Nancy White, who attended the funeral dinner for her mother Wilma Hambelton in February, could speak for anyone who has experienced the funeral dinner ministry.

“They were very kind and we greatly appreciated what they did for us,” she said. “They provided for us and the people who came to comfort us. They did a fabulous job for us, and they are there for every member of the parish.”

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