19Aug Funeral eulogies – a secular view

Brendan Grace brought the house down at a funeral I attended some time ago. He gave an entertaining and poignant tribute to the deceased, who was a close friend of his and was also a priest in the archdiocese of Dublin. Grace’s turn at the podium followed shortly after Archbishop Diarmuid Martin had also said a few words of tribute at the same event. Neither eulogy trivialised death or the Eucharist in the fashion about which Bishop of Meath Michael Smith appears to be so concerned. On the contrary, in their different styles, both Brendan Grace and Diarmuid Martin captured the character of the deceased, reflected the impact of his life’s work as a priest and brought some comfort to the bereaved.

I was at another funeral recently, in the Diocese of Ferns, of a man who had devoted much of his spare time to the local parish and community. This was reflected in a few words of tribute said in the church before Mass by a community leader, was captured during the Mass itself by the priest who although recent to the parish had come to know the deceased and respect his counsel, and was reflected again after communion by a family member who spoke of how the dead man’s life had inspired his extended family to contribute time to community and church.

At another funeral I attended a couple of years ago the priest paid a touching tribute to his mother, whose funeral it was. He spoke of how she had not only inspired his faith but had been a particular support to him in the lonely and difficult life of modern Catholic ministry. All these tributes contravened the Catholic Church’s rules, which thankfully in most dioceses are observed more in the breach than observance.

One curious feature of the changing patterns of Catholic religious observance in this country is that while attendance rates at weekly Mass have collapsed and the rates of baptism and church weddings are falling, the extent to which Irish people abide by Catholic funeral rituals is almost as strong as it was half a century ago. It is estimated that fewer than 10 per cent of funerals held in Ireland each year happen in a place other than a church.

Truth be told, weddings and funerals are the only occasions where the majority of the Irish now see the inside of a church. Irrespective of the level of religious observance during their lifetime, almost all of those born and reared as Catholics in Ireland are buried in Catholic graveyards after a full funeral Mass in a Catholic church.

From purely a marketing perspective, therefore, it seems strange that those who presumably wish to encourage engagement with the church would insist on rules which serve only to alienate the church from the needs and wishes of the community at the one time when the general community is still minded to visit church premises and avail of church services. Those church leaders who chose to publish guidelines and emphasise absolute restrictions on what can and cannot be done in a church at or around a funeral must know that in so doing they put a wedge between the church and the bereaved at a vulnerable time. It may seem like a relatively trivial issue but for families denied the opportunity to say their words of tribute in the church, or have a friend say them on their behalf it matters a lot.

It is wrong, of course, to analyse the church’s actions in marketing terms but similarly it is wrong of those in the church such as Bishop Smith to view the function and purpose of the church service at the time of bereavement in strictly defined liturgical terms.Most people, and it seems from the level of noncompliance most priests, see it as unnecessary to deny the family and the community the opportunity to know more about and celebrate the life by having somebody who knew the deceased speak of them. It can only be a good thing to allow for funeral services with a broader degree of personalisation than merely inserting the name of the deceased at specified points in the liturgy. It is peculiar that some condemn this as a “materialisation” of religion or “canonisation” of the dead

One can appreciate why any religious organisation might wish that such tributes be outside the order of the service itself, but to suggest, as Bishop Smith did this week, that any family tribute must occur outside of the church building is strange. Leaving aside the fact that church buildings are built and supported by community fundraising the notion that eulogy should occur at the graveside, where the mourners are subject to the vagaries of the Irish weather, or at some other venue or in the local paper is simply detached from the reality of everyday life.

One wonders also whether at the heart of this restrictive view is an arrogance that the uttering of wise words about the impact of a passing should be the preserve of a specifically trained, all-male priesthood. It is as if only priests can be trusted at such times to say what it is appropriate and do it well. Anyone who has sat through even a sampling of modern Irish Catholic sermons will attest that the standard of basic communication from the podiums of our churches is patchy to say the least.

Overall it smacks of a bureaucratic and arguably unchristian approach to the communal need to gather and grieve. The church should be tearing down barriers between the altar and the congregation, not re enforcing them.

11 Responses

  1. Pádraig McCarthy

    The word “eulogy” can be bandied about but meaning different things.
    A eulogy is high praise for a person. If this is taken in an isolated sense at a funeral in a Catholic church, without reference to our relationship with God, then it is not strictly part of the liturgy.
    One function of speaking of the person who has died is to paint a picture to remind those present of the person who has died, and to provide a context for any present who did not know the person. It clearly can include something about the character of the person. In this sense, done gently, it can be vary helpful – especially if done at the beginning of the liturgy, along with a word of welcome. Whether it is done by a lay person or the presiding celebrant is irrelevant.
    The problem that can arise is lack of control, of which church authorities tend to be fearful. And indeed many priests will have had the experience of most inappropriate remarks and language, perhaps at inordinate length. The parameters need to be set clearly beforehand so as not to be alien to the place, and so as not to alienate the congregation. It is hard to justify more than one person contributing in this way.
    The over-riding concern I have in a homily at a funeral is to bring out how we can discern the touch of God in the life of the person who has died. We can discern this also in the case of a person who perhaps has not been active in the church for a long time; or even a person whose life is far from exemplary. This, I think, is our primary function as priests in this situation: to see the living and loving hand of God in every person, and in how that person has touched the lives of others. The Scripture readings can be a rich resource here. Consider the first reading today, Monday August 19, from the Book of Judges, about the persistent unfaithfulness of the people of Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures are very honest about this. The hand of God is never absent.

  2. Mary Wood

    This “secular” view seems more Christian in its approach than the Bishop’s. A funeral service, be it a requiem or something simpler, is an occasion in church where all who attend are united by a link to the deceased.

    I am aware that a tribute by a deeply distressed family member can be an embarrassment to the congregation who have the impossible task of finding any meaning in an account submerged in vehement weeping. But a brief light on a life well-spent almost invariably evokes wonder and appreciation, and usually, “I’d have liked to know him/her better.”

    A eulogy is not obligatory but please let us keep the practice where we wish

  3. Clare Hannigan

    I would like to endorse what Mary Wood has said. I wonder do the funeral guidelines apply to the Priests of the Diocese.

    The book The Way written by recently canonized Saint Josemaría Escrivá tells us that –
    A Priest — whoever he may be — is always another Christ…..Pt 66
    To love God and not venerate his Priests… is not possible….Pt 74
    Presbyter — Priest — means, literally, an elderly man. If old age deserves veneration, think how much more you ought to venerate the Priesthood….Pt 68
    When a layman sets himself up as an expert on morals he often goes astray: laymen can only be disciples…Pt 61

    I wonder is it wise to elevate the Priesthood to such an extent.

  4. Andrew Young

    Why do we insist on celebrating the funeral rites within a eucharist? My reason for asking is that a majority of the funeral I have attended recently have been for seriously lapsed Catholics. Their non practicing family and friends outnumbered the elderly parishioner funeral watchers. So why drag them through a liturgy they has estranged themselves from. I know there will be many who will say that by having them attend the Mass might create a renewed spark of interest – I do not think so. These days we throw up a Mass for anything and everything; from a cheap gift for a birthday, to the celebration of baptism, confirmation, marriage and funerals. Why do we not become more creative and comfortable with the Funeral Rite and make the experience of offering the person up to the love and mercy of God an experience to be celebrated in faith, with music, scriptures, secular reading, a sermon and even the dreaded eulogy! I am sick to death of having to endure dark unlit cold uninviting churches for funerals, and even worse, having to listen to monosyllabic drivel from a priest who is clearly indicating that he would rather be somewhere else – a sentiment shared by many who attended with me. It is all so sad, so very predictable and so unnecessary. I am holding on to my Church membership by my very fingernails.

  5. Adam Peter Conroy

    Bishop Smith was merely exercising his right, as bishop to outline what are the correct procedures for funeral liturgies. If you read his statement he never actually banned eulogies, he only stated where they were and were not appropriate. This was completely his prerogative to do.

    To be honest I don’t see what all the fuss is about anyway. Most funerals I’ve been to don’t actually have eulogies.

  6. WOB

    I have been a part of many funerals as presider and as a participant with other faiths. I find that most eulogies are beautiful tributes and reasons for the mourning of the loss of the person. In our own parish I ask that they be written and of fairly short length. People who attend a funeral, especially those who have come from their jobs, cannot listen to an hour of incomprehensible wanderings. It should be out of respect not only for the deceased, but also for the grieving that eulogies be brief and orderly. If here is to be something like an open mike night at the local comedy club, it should be at the luncheon or dinner that follows.
    I do enjoy learning more about the deceased, and appreciate the difficulty that is experienced by the person giving the eulogy.

  7. Peter

    Andrew (@3) I wouldn’t sit and listen to monosyllabic drivel. I’d just get up and leave – end of – regardless of priest or anyone else. I’ve never had to do that in my life though. You get out what you put in. And sometimes with a little interest.

    People speak about being ‘good’ and ‘faithful’ – ‘practising Catholics’. But there seems little fruit to the trees. Why is that ? Why are the ‘faithful’ so quick to judge the spiritual lives of all others ?

    Help me understand this and I might understand where you are really coming from.

  8. Colm Holmes

    Bishop Smith must have been shocked and horrified at the homily/eulogy for Cardinal Cahal Daly given by Cardinal Sean Brady on the 5th of January 2010. Cardinal Cahal Daly is mentioned by name 20 times. The full eulogy is published on the diocesan website:

    http://www.kandle.ie/cardinal-daly-funeral-homily/

    But of course Cardinal Daly was not a mere lay person, he was a Prince of the church.

  9. Eddie Finnegan

    Colm@8, I suppose Seán Brady was just doing for Cahal Daly what Cahal had done for Tomás Ó Fiaich on 15 May 1990. If popes can canonise their predecessors, maybe a cardinal has a permit to eulogise his. Curiously, Michael Smith as Co-adjutor of Meath was there in Armagh for Cahal’s words over Tomás – he became Bishop of Meath the very next day, 16 May. Maybe he swore an oath then and there: “No more eulogies!”
    Of course the ordained celebrant has the advantage over your average layman or woman hoping to say a few meaningful words over their friend or family member: homily and eulogy/panegyric can be woven together so inextricably that no one can prise them apart. Which, I suppose, is how in May 2011 a genuinely grieving Enda McDonagh could send forth a Christian soul, his friend Garrett Fitzgerald’s, while keeping in mind that ‘Garrett the Good’ was having a state funeral, and that Garret’s soul was at least as convivial as it was Christian and his menus never lacked for good wine or mushy peas. Try that on from your parish church’s ambo next time your granny dies.

  10. mjt

    I don`t think we have much reason to complain about including a eulogy, as long as it`s about highlighting the Virtues of the deceased person: that way, Christ and the practice of our faith is still at the centre.

  11. John

    I attended the funeral of my cousin Maureen a few years ago in Meath diocese. The parish priest spoke mechanically. He clearly did not know Maureen. The singing was dreadful pop style caterwauling. The mourners piled into their cars for the few hundred yerds from church to cemetary, instead respectfully walking.
    There is a better way.