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The Very Rev. Antonio Dittmer, pastor of La Salle Catholic Parishes, discusses a decline in religious rites among local funerals. He and funeral directors confirm a gradual shift from traditional rites to personalized services, such as families dressing the deceased in sports apparel rather than formal attire. Societal changes such as mobility have families traveling farther to grieve amid limited bereavement time, cutting into religious observances. Dittmer said he is being asked to conduct fewer funeral Masses.
Any time a Knight of Columbus dies, Pat Dooley is ready with his rosary. Dooley is a past grand knight at Calvert Council Knights of Columbus in La Salle. He and a dozen other longtime knights will, upon request, encircle a brother’s casket and pray a rosary for the repose of his soul. It’s a KC tradition. Trouble is, few people are asking for a visitation rosary these days. Dooley said in years past the Knights would be summoned to a visitation no fewer than five times a year. Asked when they last were contacted, Dooley racked his brain and admitted, “I’ll bet it’s every bit of a year.” “I think it’s a lot of the families,” Dooley speculated. “They aren’t involved with the Knights of Columbus like they used to be — or the families might not be as active in the church as their parents.” Local funeral directors and clergy agree that funerals today are increasingly secularized and personalized, the product of a combination of societal changes and diminished religious affiliation. As religious parents die, for example, less-than-religious children sometimes are declining traditional rites in favor of personalized services such as “celebrations of life.” The Very Rev. Antonio Dittmer, pastor of the La Salle Catholic Parishes, said he’s seen a shift where some devout Catholics and daily communicants were not accorded funeral Masses, often because it fell to non-religious children to make the funeral arrangements. Dittmer said he’s seldom consulted beforehand — “Usually, by the time the priest gets the call, the funeral arrangements already are made” — but when he meets with the bereaved he often hears they declined a Mass because it’s “too drawn out” or, “It seems too sad to have a church service.” “This seems to be a trend that is slowly taking place,” Dittmer observed. “We sometimes have been trained to avoid grief in all its stages. Death is something we like to keep out of our view. We’d just as soon not look at death in any way possible, nor the afterlife, nor judgment, etc.” In other cases, however, a decedent may have been embittered over a church closing and make pre-arrangements that don’t include a church. Jim Barto, a funeral director for 40 years, said he’s handled arrangements for people who were devoted parishioners at now-closed parishes such as St. Anne’s in Spring Valley or St. Benedict’s in Ladd. If they cannot be buried in the same church as they were baptized or married, many adherents will choose not to be brought into a church at all. Over the same span, funeral directors report more personalization of services — a change that was years in the making. Don Shields, an Oglesby funeral director, has noticed in his 20 years a gradual shift from traditional to personalized funerals. Mourners began bringing in photos depicting the deceased and the practice eventually came to include the display of personal memorabilia such as sports jerseys, hobby-related tools and other personal items. “There is much more display of what was important to them, either for the visitation or even being placed in the casket through burial,” Shields said. Barto agreed he’s seeing more Cubs and Bears hats left in the caskets with decedents dressed in their street clothes. “People who were always casually dressed, they’re burying them that way,” Barto said. “Years and years ago we didn’t see that much.” The trend was notable because decedents born before World War II typically were buried in formal dress and funeral rites were more uniform. That changed when the Baby Boom generation and their children came along. “With earlier generations, things were much more traditional,” Shields said. “As the post-World War II generations came of age, things became a little less formal and people wanted a little more individuality — doing things to their own tastes.” Other changes have taken place but are attributable to societal shifts rather than personal preference. Rising mobility and limited bereavement days mean that Americans today have to travel farther and are under time constraints to bury their dead. As a result, traditional two-day visitations have been condensed into daylong affairs and some religious observances are bypassed so out-of-towners can return to their homes and jobs. “There isn’t much today that is standard — that we can say happens at every funeral,” said Tom Burgess, a funeral director for 25 years. “People’s preferences have changed and there are more choices.” Then there’s cremation, which has risen sharply in recent years as mainstream Christian denominations have relaxed their norms regarding burial. Families are increasingly grieving without a body present, ushering in the photos and slide shows procured to help mourners remember the deceased. Anyone concerned with how their survivors would bury them is encouraged to meet with a funeral director. Among the advantages of making pre-paid arrangements is that the money is exempt from asset declarations such as Medicaid petitions. John Balestri, a La Salle attorney whose practice includes wills and estates, said he’s frequently asked to include funeral directives in a last will and testament — but that’s not the vehicle used to convey funeral directives. “I tell them that as far as final arrangements, they should talk to the funeral director,” Balestri said. “By the time I get involved, the services are over, the person is buried and that’s the end of it.”