Wednesday, January 2, 2008

NOT SUCH A DEAD TOPIC

Do you want to know what one of the best things about being a parochial vicar is? You can say this line, “I’m sorry, I have no power here. I’m afraid you will have to speak to the pastor about that.” So when you are torn about a certain practice at a parish you can take the easy way out by choosing to no longer think about it since it is your duty to be obedient to the pastor. Such is the case with eulogies at funerals.

I hate them.

Well, to be clear, I hate them at mass.

Okay, I don’t hate them. There is something healing it seems about them but it is like trying to make friends with a mean cat. You want to try to befriend them but all too often you get scratched. Badly.

Perhaps it was with the advent of Television that funeral masses have taken a funny turn from being about worshiping and praising God, showing and building our faith in the afterlife, commending a soul into the Father’s care, to celebrating the life of an individual. So at some point in the liturgy we stop everything, ask everybody to sit down, and someone comes up to give a talk – something expressly forbidden at any other ordinary mass.

Here is where the trouble begins. At the top of the list are those things that are not topics for Church. It usually begins with a sly look over at me and the introduction, “I probably shouldn’t say this in front of Father but . . .” and then they talk about the time they got so drunk, or the time they went to see this really fat stripper (that was uncomfortable for everybody) or some such thing. They should have followed their first impulse not to say anything.


Then there are the theological points proclaimed with heart-felt vigor that are none-the-less wrong. Very often – very, very often the pronouncement is made of the fact that the person we are gathered to pray for is already in heaven. "We know this is true," or some such thing is said. But if true, then why have the mass for them? Will that person be denied prayers now which they might need because, after all, they are in heaven?

Then there are those who promise to be short but who are quite verbose. On more than one occasion when the "short" eulogy has gone on so long that I have had to walk over and quietly tell the person that they need to stop now because the next funeral was waiting outside. One time apologizing to the widow profusely asked her if she would like for me to invite the speakers to finished either at the grave or at the luncheon responded, "Oh heavens no! Keep those windbags shut!"

Then there is the one time that the person speaking was from a Protestant denomination and used the pulpit to evangelize. That was horrible.

We do have rules but they are rarely followed. We could demand to see a copy before hand (and try from time to time) but nobody has one written in advance and if it is too horrible it is hard to say, "have this rewritten in an hour and submit it again before the mass.

Now don't think that I make these rules for others but fail to observe them myself. For my own mother the eulogy did not take place at the mass (She would have hated it being done anyway) and I have left similar instruction for my own funeral. But perhaps they are healing and SHOULD be done. They can be done at other appropriate times such as at the funeral home during one of the scheduled prayer times, at the grave site, or at the luncheon. And true, there are some times that it simply cannot be avoided. Perhaps there are no calling hours, or the person was significant in such a way that this would be the only venue large enough to gather the people who would like to hear it.

I guess in the end this post will not be very helpful in that it doesn't call for a ban on eulogies nor a wholesale approval of them. For now I can (must) rely on the pastor's discretion. But perhaps this might help someone be aware of some concerns that may be out there. With that in mind, If you are writing a eulogy I have these (personal) suggestions:

1. At least consider giving it outside of the mass setting.
2. If it is in the mass setting, don't say things that you would not expect to hear from the pulpit.
3. Express hope and trust in Jesus' saving action, but shy away from someone being declared a saint in heaven already. They may still need prayers.
4. Be prepared. It is easy in that emotional state to be distracted. Write what you are going to say down.
5. Please, please, please mention something about the person's faith life.
6. It is Okay to be short. Admit it, you hate it when the homily is over five minutes.

This is usually a touchy topic and it is difficult to speak about. If you have any thoughts I would be open to them.

Really.

15 comments:

Rob said...

Wow. I never thought about the awkwardness a priest must experience in today's world at a funeral, but I don't doubt a word you say.

I can't even stand it when someone has to speak from the pulpit after mass. I realize bulletin reminders may be inescapable, but the other day a man got up there and, after reminding us about Family Day, said "Father so-and-so said a great homily. I would just add one thing..."

Oh, boy, I thought. Here we go.

Anonymous said...

One of the best eulogies I heard was when my Uncle died suddenly this past year (my dad's brother). My cousin's son was very close to his grandfather and after Communion, he went up and read a poem he created about his grandfather & why he loved him. This child of 8 had everyone in tears! All in all, he stated what everyone was feeling in their heart -
Lillian Marie

Fr. Daren J. Zehnle said...

I've always enjoyed this line from the Order of Christian Funerals:

"A brief homily based on the readings is always given after the gospel reading at the funeral liturgy and may also be given after the readings at the vigil service; but there is never to be a euology" (27, emphasis mine).

Mary Martha said...

From the opposite side of the communion rail....

When my father died I went with my mother to plan the funeral. The Pastor asked who would be saying the eulogy. I looked at him and said "We're Catholic - we don't do that". Pastor responded that of course we can if we want to. We didn't want to. (his response to my mother's traditional Latin music selections was a distinct wince)

Instead the pastor got up and offered a homily that was anti-war (this was in 2003). A war that my father strongly believed was just. Then the priest refused to come to the burial because it was in the veterans cemetery. It's one thing to not go because you are busy but quite another to not go because of your political positions.

I regretted not taking the priest up on his offer to say a eulogy if only to stop him from giving that particular homily. I didn't attend Mass at all for about a year after that funeral and still refuse to go to that parish (my geographic parish that I have lived in my whole life).

There is something about funerals that just makes them a minefield.

uncle jim said...

my wife, aunt rozann, just returned from a funeral. she said the widow gave a eulogy at the conclusion of mass. had most in tears. several hundred in attendance. the deceased was no political personage, just a well respected teacher, husband, father, friend.

outside temperature was 5f degrees, and she said many did not go to the gravesite.

L. said...

Mary M.,
As a fellow Catholic, I am so sorry that happened to you! I can't even imagine a priest or anyone NOT going to a veterans cemetery because of political views. Wouldn't you just go out of respect for those who served our country? Ohmygosh, I would've been livid/hurt, and completely understand your subsequent actions from that experience. I hope your faith in the church has been restored at a new parish and may God bless you!
L.

Jennifer said...

My mother's parish hosted a wake in the church the afternoon before the funeral service, led by one of the deacons. We said our eulogies there and the deacon followed with something warm and fuzzy, and prayers.

Following day was the funeral Mass, and it was what a Mass ought to be; Father gave a homily that was tight, concise, appropriate theology. My agnostic sister-in-law was impressed.

This was the way to do it. Combining two different events into one would have been the worst of both worlds. Would you host toasts the bride and groom in the middle of the wedding Mass? No. Same thing. Significant life events don't need to be crammed into one convenient appointment time. Spread 'em out, do 'em right.

A Simple Sinner said...

Eulogies are best at a wake, over pints and happy memories.

Much to my chagrin and sadness at the packed funeral of a friend of mine who died young - subsumed by alcohol and depression - a eulogy by friends and not a sermon was offered at the funeral Mass.

In a packed church of a young man who died in a very troubling and sad fashion, the faithful were not exhorted to pray for the repose of his soul.

Instead we were given a canonization of sorts "He's at peace now."

I feel at more peace having Masses offered for his soul and remembering him in my daily Rosary.

I sure hope when I day people pray for my soul. I am one with Saint Monica on this one - do what you will with my lifeless body, but do not neglect prayer for my soul.

Is it too much to ask to come up with a distinction between a hellfire and brimstone sermon and an insta-canonization? Is a gentle exhortation of the faithful to pray for our loved one that jarring?

I sure hope not.

In a packed church, not one soul was implored to pray for his. That caused me no small amount of sadness.

So Father I urge you gently tell the grieving the truth - it is disallowed, your hands in fact ARE tied - and then remind them to pray for their loved one.

Please pray for the repose of Jeremiah. It is our happy duty as Catholics to do just that.

tara said...

Father, I thought that euologies at Mass was a big NO! I agree with Father Zehnie--Mass is not the place for any euology! simple sinner has it correct--euologies are for the wake--over a few pints where you can remember the dead with tears and laughter.

Anonymous said...

Father V,

I'm glad you brought this topic up. I really have not liked euologies and thought it was odd to hear them in Catholic churches presented by family members of the deceased who are not practicing Catholics and may not even "like" the Church.

I'll have to make a note to let my family members know this is NOT my wish when my time comes around.

I was in charge of a funeral for a relative who was never married/no kids and it was presented to me I could do a euology. I passed on it because I never liked them in church.

MaryB

sparky said...

The following is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. If I happen to die in some unfortunate way, I am asking that this be read as my eulogy.

Letter written by Saint Thomas More from prison to his daughter Margaret:

Although I know well, Margaret, that because of my past wickedness I deserve to be abandoned by God, I cannot but trust in his merciful goodness. His grace has strengthened me until now and made me content to lose goods, land, and life as well, rather than to swear against my conscience. God's grace has given the king a gracious frame of mind toward me, so that as yet he has taken from me nothing but my liberty. In doing this His Majesty has done me such great good with respect to spiritual profit that I trust that among all the great benefits he has heaped so abundantly upon me I count my imprisonment the very greatest. I cannot, therefore, mistrust the grace of God.

By the merits of his bitter passion joined to mine and far surpassing in merit for me all that I can suffer myself, his bounteous goodness shall release me from the pains of purgatory and shall increase my reward in heaven besides.

I will not mistrust him, Meg, though I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how Saint Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith, and I shall do as he did: call upon Christ and pray to him for help. And then I trust he shall place his holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning.

And finally, Margaret, I know this well: that without my fault he will not let me be lost. I shall, therefore, with good hope commit myself wholly to him. And if he permits me to perish for my faults, then I shall serve as praise for his justice. But in good faith, Meg, I trust that his tender pity shall keep my poor soul safe and make me commend his mercy.

And, therefore, my own good daughter, do not let you mind be troubled over anything that shall happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatever that be, however bad it may seem, it shall indeed be the best.

Anonymous said...

If there have to be eulogies, they should be prepared, preferably written out, with a clear beginning, middle and end. There is no need for a eulogy to be more than five minutes. Two double spaced typed pages, proofread and practiced, is more than enough. The person writing/delivering the eulogy should have some experience in public speaking. The vast majority of eulogies are horrible, as are the family/friend guest "soloists" or "musicians," who are almost never qualified to serve at liturgy. If I have to hear one more amaturish rendition of "Ave Maria" my chasuble will need a special trip to the dry cleaners.

A Simple Sinner said...

Why not just whip out the Order of Christian Funerals:

"A brief homily based on the readings is always given after the gospel reading at the funeral liturgy and may also be given after the readings at the vigil service; but there is never to be a euology"

Followed by "Gee, you know I would really love that, really I would love to hear the eulogy... Ahh, my hands are tied!"

Fr. V said...

The hardest part is keeping with Church teaching when the parishes around you do not. "Well, St. Soandso always allows eulogies. What's the matter with you people?"

I wish we could all stay on the same page. *sigh*

Cathy_of_Alex said...

I don't think lay people should be eulogizing at a Catholic Mass. When my Mom and brother passed, Father asked for some reflections about them. He incorporated some of it in his Homily-which was, sort of, the eulogy but it was still a Homily.

It's leaving the Mass too open to outright dissenters and inappropriate commentary, as you noted, to have laypeople speaking.