By Marge Bitetti
SAN BERNARDINO—Death is not a popular subject for most people.
Often the only time that people think about death is when they attend a funeral.
For many Catholics there are three times a year when their thoughts reflect on death; on All Saints’ Day, on All Souls’ Day and perhaps on Good Friday.
Death, however, is a reality of life. In the words of Bishop Gerald Barnes, “A well-planned and dignified celebration of the funeral liturgies of the Catholic Church offers praise and thanks to God for the life and faith of the deceased while at the same time bringing consolation and a strength of faith to those who remain behind.” (Guideline for Christian Funerals in the Diocese of San Bernardino, 1/10/2014).
Deacon John Barna, Director of the Diocesan Office of Catholic Cemeteries, stresses the importance of pre-planning not just from an economic standpoint, but pre-planning relieves the burden for the loved ones who remain. In pre-planning, people can let their wishes be known to their family. While the person is still alive they can decide if they want burial or cremation. They can have an input about the prayers and music that will celebrate their life, and their loved ones can have peace at a time of sorrow knowing that their departed loved one had a say in how they wanted their life to be celebrated.
“Pre-planning is great but making your wishes known is important to those who remain,” Deacon Barna says. “You can go to your Maker knowing that you have not left anything untied.”
Deacon Barna receives a lot of phone calls from families at a time of death when there has been no preparation and the question that he often receives is, “What do I do next?”
He says he is not only the director of Catholic Cemeteries but he also serves as a bereavement minister.
“I journey with them,” says Deacon Barna. “There are so many things that people don’t know about the process sometimes the mortuaries provide false information.”
At the time of death, families are under both economic and emotional pressure, along with family dynamics. People want to make the right decision but emotionally are not able to think clearly, Deacon Barna observes. A cremation can cost as much as $1,000 and a funeral can cost a family between $6,000-$10,000, or more. Many families do not have an extra $10,000 available for an emergency burial. In this light, death is not just a subject for the elderly to consider.
“No one wants to talk about it, but you can’t ignore it. People need to take responsibility and save money,” said Deacon Barna, adding that a life insurance policy is one option for setting aside money for burial.
According to Catholic Charities CEO Ken Sawa, impoverished families dealing with the financial burden of burial costs experience “a crisis on top of a crisis, on top of a crisis, especially if it involves the death of a child or a violent death.
“Poverty itself is an enduring crisis for families, and then imagine the emotional crisis of the passing of a loved one, AND the crisis of the subsequent burial,” he says.
According to the statistics provided by Catholic Charities in the combined counties of Riverside and San Bernardino 728,786 people live below the Federal Poverty Level. Families often need to raise money for burials in a variety of ways, in addition to car washes, and donations by friends and families, churches, and other sources, families use their rent money to pay for a simple funeral. This can set the stage for an eventual eviction if they are unable to catch up on their rent.
In that sense, the work of Catholic Charities involves helping these families absorb the added cost of funeral services while keeping up with monthly living expenses.
“We do this by working directly with mortuaries, and sometimes helping with a portion of the cost of the burial,” Sawa says. “We have no special funds for this assistance. Our burial support services are fully funded by private donations, and those funds are most often expended about mid-year.
“The need is great. The more resources we have, the more families we can help.”
Deacon Barna and his staff, along with the trained volunteers working in bereavement ministry at local parishes, work in harmony with the staff at Catholic Charities to advise and educate families about funeral services.
Marge Bitetti is a freelance writer and a parishioner of St. Matthew, Corona.