GREENVILLE — When the leader of St. Mary’s Celebration of Life Luncheon Committee gave a six-month notice she was leaving her position after five years, no one stepped up to take her place. Finally, one of the committee members, Sheila Erck, volunteered to help out until they found a new leader.
“I said, ‘I will learn it, but I don’t want to be in charge,’” said Erck.
Those were famous last words for Erck, who has now been leading the committee, which hosts funeral meals at the parish, since 2017. “I started here with the funeral committee with Helen Schaefer. If they had a funeral on Saturday, I helped serve the meal,” said Erck. “Helen instilled something in me. She said, ‘We need to make this nice for people because this might be the last meal that they ever sit down together and eat.’”
After Schaefer moved out of the area, Mary Taylor filled her shoes, and then Erck took over for her. “Mary took a really good program that Helen had set up and made it extraordinary,” she said. “We went from parishioners bringing hot dishes to using chafing racks to serving meat that we get from The Meat Block,” a meat market in Greenville.
When people attend funeral lunches, it may seem as if everything magically appears, but it takes a lot of work to coordinate a large meal in such a short time. Erck described the process. “When someone passes away, I get contacted from the church. I call the family and I tell them I’m sorry for their loss. I tell them the different food choices — you can have hot or cold ham or turkey, pulled pork, hot beef or shredded turkey.”
The main dishes determine what side dishes will be served. “We always have cheese and crackers. Joe Lippert (a local farmer) brings us cheese. That’s a big gift. We have cut-up fresh vegetables, cut-up fruit, potatoes — mashed or cheesy — a vegetable, such as green bean casserole or corn, baked beans, salads and desserts.”
Other than the meat and buns, all the other dishes are prepared and donated by parishioners. Erck shops at a local grocery store, using Scrip purchased from the parish, and buys milk, butter, creamer, condiments, crackers, potato chips and ice. Serving items, such as napkins and coffee cups, are provided by the parish from the funeral fund. The family hosting the funeral is responsible for paying for the meat, buns, and food from the grocery store. The average cost per plate is $2 to $4. After the luncheon, the leftovers are packed up and either given to the family or donated to a homeless shelter.
One of the most difficult things to determine when planning funeral luncheons is how many people they will be serving. Erck gets an initial estimate from the family but gets a final count during Mass from the funeral director. Usually two-thirds of the people at Mass attend the luncheon.
“It depends on what day it is (and) it depends on the age,” said Erck. “With a younger person, there are more people there but less stay. With an older person, this is their big meal, so more stay. We’ve never run out of food, but I always pray.”
There are 90 volunteers on the Celebration of Life Luncheon team, including Erck’s husband, Rick, who helps wash dishes. After Erck does the initial steps in planning the meal, including estimating the quantity of food they’ll need, she contacts two of her volunteers who begin calling other volunteers to ask them to work at the luncheon or provide food. There is a group of 10 core volunteers who do both.
“It was stressful for me at first, but now I don’t have too much stress,” said Erck. “Afterwards, I keep all the obituaries, I keep track of how many workers we had, what food we had, and how many we served.”
The average age of a volunteer on the Celebration of Life Luncheon Committee is 80. With about a dozen funerals at their parish each year, Erck is looking for more volunteers, particularly younger people. “If you work full time, get on the list for food. The more help we have, the easier it becomes,” she said.
“I don’t want to lead this past age 75. I’m hoping someone will step forward then,” Erck added. “If there was even one other person to share this ministry, if I was going to be on vacation, that would take a big load off my shoulders.”
Working with the Celebration of Life Luncheon Committee has been a gratifying endeavor for Erck.
“A lot of churches around here don’t do it anymore, they cater food in. Then you get paper plates and plastic utensils,” said Erck. “People have lost a loved one and they’re hurting. If we can give them some comfort food and make it look nice — now with the separate pans and the chafing dishes, everything is organized and it looks really pretty — then we’ve done our job well.”