A Tale of Two Funerals

The funeral of my mother-in-law, Ruth, was beautifully celebrated at the cathedral downtown, a venue chosen over their parish due to anticipated crowd size.  As organ music filled the majestic Greek-revival space, two archbishops and 20 priests led her large extended family down the long aisle. “Grandeur and glory” were the words used by a friend to describe the liturgy.

Not surprisingly, the Order of Christian Funerals (OCF) was followed to the letter in designing this service.  No eulogies distracted from the meaning of Christian death or dragged out the service.  The opening hymn choice was based on its resurrection theme rather than significance to the family.  The committal of the body hymn transitioned seamlessly into the recessional; we were not permitted to choose a closing song.  To be sure, a few personal touches greatly enriched the ritual, particularly the homily delivered by a dear priest-friend and the exuberance of Ruth’s 19 grandchildren processing with flowers at the offertory.

Six weeks later my husband and I attended the nearly mirror opposite funeral of a family friend, one of our personal “elders.”  Herb was the patriarch of a large energetic family not unlike my in-laws’.  Perhaps it was the influence of his Baptist roots, but the words I’d choose to characterize Herb’s funeral liturgy are “joyful” and “personal.”

After the opening procession, the eldest son delivered an extended welcome and eulogy.  Several other eulogists spoke after communion, followed by prayers and singing led by a delegation of 20 or so from Herb’s college fraternity (including one more brief eulogy) and concluding with final remarks from another of his sons.  I smiled to myself imagining the cathedral music director’s quiet disdain for such practices.

Ruth’s funeral followed all the rules, and Herb’s missed on a few of them, but both communities departed nourished, uplifted, comforted.  Having experienced both of them, I cannot see how Ruth’s was objectively “better.” Both were meaningful and liturgical and proclaimed the resurrection but in different ways, reflecting varied spiritual styles.  The OCF’s insistence on God and the paschal mystery in the liturgy over any elaboration on the individual person seems to deny human needs.  It sounds a bit too much like “don’t feel that way” in a situation of grief and loss.

It is a unique person who the family and friends are mourning, and the desire to include elements evocative of him or her in the funeral mass seems natural.  I do not advocate an “anything goes” approach, but I think wider latitude on scriptural selections and hymnody is appropriate as is a eulogy if desired by the family.  I’m just not convinced that a loosening of some requirements would denigrate the liturgy, particularly eulogies.

My sister-in-law and I tried to discuss eulogies during our liturgy planning meeting at the cathedral.  Smiling, the music director assured us that “words of remembrance” are encouraged – but only at the funeral home the night before or at the cathedral before the start of mass.  That sounds good but doesn’t really work in reality. Visitations in our area are conducted open house style, so there’s no familiar moment at which to deliver a eulogy.  It would interrupt the flow, and many people would miss it.  Before the start of mass, all of the family would be out in the vestibule or in our case even on the steps outside waiting for the procession and would therefore miss hearing it altogether.

A eulogy at the end of mass, after communion, especially if it is very emotional or rambling, probably does strike a wrong note.  I have heard “words of remembrance” delivered after the entrance procession and before the liturgy of the word, and that seems to fit.  The family has just placed the pall, symbolizing baptism, on the casket and then accompanied the body down the aisle. These final gestures of care to a loved one provide a symbolically appropriate moment to hear a few words about the deceased as a particular human person before entering the transcendent liturgy.

A common objection to eulogies is that they are poorly done and too long.  Let’s teach people how to give an effective remembrance.  In fact, the church could more fully articulate its own theological distinction between a eulogy and a remembrance.  Eulogies denote speeches simply praising the person who has died, whereas a remembrance would reflect on his or her life in light of faith.

Ordinary Catholics already serve as readers, acolytes, liturgists, catechists, and a host of other roles for which they receive training.  Preparation to offer a remembrance could encompass discernment as to one’s inherent gifts and calling to this ministry.  Rather than squelching and forbidding the human impulse to memorialize the dead, the church should help us to grow in the role.

Copyright Peg Conway 2010

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2 Responses to A Tale of Two Funerals

  1. Stephanie Thomson says:

    Did you happen to see Fr. James Martin’s link on Facebook re “Death of the Eulogy?”

  2. pegconway says:

    I did! I had previously read that article in US Catholic online — guess it just came out in the print edition. The author of that article’s viewpoint seemed a bit similar to mine.

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