A CRITICAL shortage of clergy has forced the Catholic Church to train up members of its congregations to carry out funerals.

Lay members of the church in the west of Scotland are being trained up to officiate elements of the funeral after one bishop gave the plan the go-ahead to alleviate the pressure on parish priests.

Although funeral masses would remain the responsibility of a priest, the Diocese of Galloway has signalled an increase in 'funeral services', which could be carried out by a lay person and would not involve the sacrament of communion.

It would mirror funerals in the Church of Scotland which Kirk elders frequently conduct.

The Diocese recently released figures which showed the number of priests had more than halved since 1990, with the fall in churchgoers nearly as steep.

The move, the first in Scotland, has emerged the same week as Pope Francis issued directions over burials and cremations to the world's Catholics.

He said the ashes of cremated Catholics should not be kept at home, scattered or divided among family members but retained in "sacred places" such as cemeteries.

On Wednesday, five lay Catholics attended funeral training at St Brides in West Kilbride in Ayrshire following an appeal by parish priest Father Joe Boland.

In a recent parish bulletin, Fr Boland said: "All over the world, lay men and women have been conducting funerals for years. Obviously they cannot say Mass, but not every funeral involves Mass, and in that case there is nothing a priest can do that a lay person cannot do.

"This will sound strange to many of you, but as the number of parishes covered by one priest grows, it will become more and more necessary. "This is not the case here in West Kilbride at the moment, but the current situation will not last forever."

He later posted: "Five individuals. two men and three women, have now indicated an interest in finding out more about this ministry. The way forward is for them to attend the training sessions after which we and they will have a better idea if this work is for them. I am grateful and slightly amazed that so many have come forward."

Three years ago parishioners in the Diocese, which includes the Ayrshires, Dumfrieshire and Galloway, were told the situation regarding church attendances and the clerics shortage was "no longer sustainable" and needed "changes in mindset, in expectation and in structures".

In 1990 it had 55 priests for 53 churches. There are now around 20 priests for 43 churches. The number of those attending mass in the diocese is around 9000, down from nearly 18,200 a quarter of a century ago.

A senior church source said no-one requesting a funeral mass would be denied but many lapsed Catholics simply wanted the solemnity and dignity of a church burial, with some services were no-one received Holy Communion during the service.

The Herald understands there are no plans to roll the training out to other Catholic dioceses.

A spokesman said: "This is part of sensible pastoral planning on the part of the Diocese of Galloway intended to meet the needs the Diocese faces just now."

Meanwhile, a ex-funeral director who joined the priesthood, has backed the Pope's position on burials, claiming his former industry was now making "teddy bears" from human ashes.

Father Kevin Dow, parish priest of Ss John and Columba’s Rosyth and St Peter in Chains, Inverkeithing, told the Scottish Catholic Observer in the past decade that "companies have been looking at what new things can be used in the funeral industry".

He said: “There are now many and varied things you can do with cremated remains such as making them into jewellery, ornaments, fireworks, teddy bears or getting decorative cardboard tubes to enable splitting them up amongst family members

“The Church has recognised that this is happening but wishes that the faithful should show the greatest of respect to our dead and so have their remains buried in the ground.”