May 10, 2011

Against the Priests (a Funeral Rant)

The planning of funeral liturgies is a favorite complaining point for us clergy. Inappropriate music choices, trite or vulgar eulogies, and the general assumption that funerals are 'celebrations of life' rather than sacrifice and intercession made on behalf of the dead, all of these--and more--get to be sore points between the faithful and their priests. I dealt with these things many times as a parish priest. I hated having to always go into a liturgy nervous about what crazy thing people might try to do, and struggled with temptations to indulge disdain for the people, I confess.

Having been out of parish work for almost a year, the distance has given me some perspective on these questions. The more I think about it, the more I come around to the assertion that it is the clergy who are to be blamed for these things, not the people.

First, eulogies. I have groaned inside as I have heard the dead disrespected with tacky stories. I have squirmed in the presider's chair as I heard drinking stories proclaimed in church. I'm sure many mourners and celebrants can relate. But here's the thing: as long as celebrities and politicians are allowed to have eulogies at their funeral Masses, you can't tell regular folks that they can't. If Barack Obama can get up in front of the Blessed Sacrament and praise Ted Kennedy, that means that someone can get up and talk about grandma's meatballs or uncle so-and-so's drunken misadventures. It's only fair, folks.

Second, music. Once folks get the idea that they need to hear some corny or secular song at the funeral of their loved one, it can be very difficult to find a way out of it. Policies help, but like so many things, there's some priest somewhere who allowed it, and therefore everyone else has a right to it. Again, the people aren't the problem, but the underlying assumption--embraced by most clergy--that the way one gets music into the liturgy is by 'picking songs.' A lot of priests have no more formal training or artistic sense than the average lay person (and sometimes less) and yet priests reserve the right to pick songs for Mass based on their tastes and 'themes.' Sorry, just because OCP or GIA publishes a piece of music doesn't mean that it is automatically appropriate for liturgy either. So, as long as we accept without question that the ordinary texts of the Mass are to replaced with songs and hymns that we have the right to pick and choose according to our own tastes and 'themes,' we can't tell the people they can't do the same thing, according to the 'theme' they imagine is important to them. So, priests, if you don't want people demanding silly or inappropriate music for funerals (and weddings for that matter) just undermine the whole assumption and tell the people (and yourself) that the music doesn't have to be picked in the first place because it's already there in the Missal and the Gradual. And yes, there are English versions of the Gradual, even for free!

Finally, preaching. The homily is one of those places where the whole 'celebration of life' problem comes into focus. People want a homily that 'makes it personal.' Not that this isn't possible with a principal emphasis on the paschal mystery and Christian hope, but often these things, which ought to be primary, fall to a secondary place at best. In other words, many times folks presume that the homily ought to be a eulogy, and are sometimes annoyed when they get the former. But again, here's the thing: most of the funerals I've been to for priests and religious have been the same thing, and sometimes even more outrageously so. Therefore, reverend fathers, if we want to undermine the encroachment of the 'celebration of life' model, we have to start with ourselves.


Simon said...

"But here's the thing: as long as celebrities and politicians are allowed to have eulogies at their funeral Masses, you can't tell regular folks that they can't. If Barack Obama can get up in front of the Blessed Sacrament and praise Ted Kennedy, that means that someone can get up and talk about grandma's meatballs or uncle so-and-so's drunken misadventures. It's only fair, folks."

Father, with respect, it isn't, you can, some bishops have, and you should. GIRM 382 is explicit: "At the Funeral Mass there should, as a rule, be a short homily, but never a eulogy of any kind." That's really the end of the matter, and Bp. Morlino's unpleasant experience in trying to put a stop to it demonstrates why abuse can't be allowed to fester. The longer it festers, the harder it is to fix. If people are upset at the perceived unfairness, they should ask why Card. O'Malley is giving a Catholic funeral to a notorious public heretic, let alone preferential treatment.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for the comment.

I think the sense of GIRM 382 is that the homily shouldn't be eulogy, genere laudationis funebris,as I have said. This doesn't revoke the rubric in the funeral ritual that gives family or friends a chance to speak after the Prayer after Communion, before the Final Commendation.

Gordon said...

Really interesting post, Father. I'm rarely at funerals, however, I'm sure this will start popping up in my head in the future as I attend more.

Of course that awareness is a double-edged sword. :)

Padre Paulus said...

Amen! Priest funerals (and any liturgy conducted solely by and for priests) are oftentimes the occasions of some of the worst violations of liturgical law. Sad, and I'm not sure why...

Anonymous said...

I was once at a wedding held at a Roman Catholic church where the first reading was taken from the Bible, the second reading was taken from the Koran, and communion was administered with the bride and the groom seated. I felt like an imposter to the faith being seen in attendance there.

Anonymous said...

Father, I was organist at my praish for 20 years, and trust me, I've seen just about everything (which was one reason for retiring from that position). At one wedding, the bride was a vet who insisted on her dog, Calvin, as ring-bearer. The dog was quite reverent and well-behaved - and I didn't see how he carried the cushin with the wedding rings on it as the organ is in an upstairs loft. At another wedding, the bride was a divorcee w/ 4 kids whose son walked her down the aisle. Her groom was a widower, a former priest, whose first marriage had taken place in another denomination, and whose laicization had just come through before he married wife #2. They lived together for a year before the marriage, but the wedding was quite elaborate, verging on tacky. As for funerals, at one there was a video show of the life of the deceased; at another, one of the eulogists showed up drunk and was alllowed to speak nevertheless. At another funeral, the deceased had been a member of a folk band which performed at the Mass - and all this w/out a murmur from our pastor. Not suprising, though - I once heard him say that "whenever anything comes from Rome, we close our eyes". Also, with regard to the choir, he told me that "I don't poke my nose in; I don't ask questions".
I live just outside Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and maybe this is a regional quirk - but these incidents, and many others, played a large part in my departure. When I left, I didn't even get a card.

For obvious reasons, I must remain anonymous. Sorry for the length.

Faith said...

My parish has a lot of funerals--average about 13 a week. They are wonderful opportunities to evangelize. Many there are not Catholic or non practicing Catholics. Here's a chance to bring them in. I've overheard, more than once, "I miss this." "This was beautiful." "This was so meaningful."
Whatever you do, please be cognizant of this opportunity to touch souls.

Sarah said...

I really do hate hearing eulogies at funerals that practically bestow sainthood on the person. A doctor friend who died several years ago actually wrote a short note for the priest telling him that she would not want a eulogy at her funeral, only prayers and more prayers. Another priest we knew would allow anyone who wished to eulogize the person to do this at the wake, right after the prayers. Then he avoided it being done at the funeral Mass.