This week, two priests took up opposing positions on what is and is not appropriate for a Catholic funeral Mass.
For Fr Tomas Walsh of Gurranabraher parish in Cork, items such as bottles of alcohol, packets of cigarettes, and football jerseys are undignified and out of keeping with the meaning of a Catholic funeral. Fr Walsh, speaking initially to our sister newspaper The Echo, also deplored lengthy eulogies which can go on for longer than the rest of the ceremony.
However, disagreeing with Fr Walsh, Fr Tim Hazelwood said on behalf of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) that funerals should be planned “in collaboration” with the bereaved family and that the eulogy can often be more meaningful than the homily.
The discussion is indeed timely, if not overdue. Recent years have seen a progressive merging of the Christian and humanist understanding of death as cultural Catholics continue to mark major life events within the frame of religious rites.
This applies to more than funerals, of course, but funeral celebrations have been appropriated, remixed, and often overlaid with values that are explicitly removed from the faith that underlies them.
Media coverage of funerals of well-known people and those who die in tragic circumstances show just how far it is possible to go in customising a funeral in a Catholic church. Not alone is personal taste in ritual and music fully facilitated, but expression is permitted for rather idiosyncratic beliefs that have little or nothing in common with the faith being professed.
It is hardly fair to castigate bereaved families with little faith formation for making inappropriate requests. Equally, it is hard to demand that a pastor dealing with grieving families veto what has already been accepted by other priests and even bishops.
When the well-publicised funerals of well-connected public figures permits such an eclectic range of liturgical options, including the option of an accommodating celebrant, there is always a danger that social clout will be seen as the arbiter of what can and can’t be permitted. So an orthodox priest is likely to appear bigoted and unfeeling when he pushes back against family requests.
Defending the integrity of the Christian understanding of life and death and the ceremonies that mark the journey of faith from cradle to grave is not something to undertake when arranging a funeral with a grieving family. This is why Fr Walsh’s contribution outside any individual pastoral context is helpful.
The meaning of Christian funeral ceremonies is very different from secular or humanist ones. Though it may sound paradoxical, straightforward religious rites are in fact more inclusive and affirming than personalised versions.
Religious ritual treats everyone, rich or poor, friendless or well connected, in exactly the same way. Humanist funerals where loved ones offer tributes, where specially chosen rituals and symbols celebrate a life of achievements clearly offer nothing to the estranged, unloved, homeless or friendless human soul.
The fashion for customising funeral liturgy can be a source of pressure or even strife within families. Not every family can produce an articulate, confident speaker and those that do set a bar for others.
And of course there are families who like poor Cordelia, the fictional character in William Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, simply can’t or won’t “heave (their) hearts into their mouths” however much they love their dead relative.
Few people remember the funeral of Princess Diana for anything other than the heated rhetoric and score-settling of her brother’s eulogy. Family politics can intrude at funerals of all walks of life.
The funeral rites of the Christian Church offer a unique perspective on the value of a completed earthly journey.
What matters now, in terms of faith, are not the passing things, the things that sustained us and distinguished us as we lived and loved, succeeded or failed, enjoyed popularity or suffered loneliness. Faith means that the most meaningful thing we can do for our departed loved ones is to commend them to the healing, merciful love of the God who created and redeemed them.
In that prayer lies our own comfort and consolation too.
Religious rites for the dead do not deny the human element, as some may argue, but embrace it in a more complete and radical way.
But the human element can overwhelm that truth too. Irish poet Seán Ó Ríordáin, writing about his mother’s funeral, spoke about a look of ‘saoltacht’ or worldliness in the priest’s face as the burial took place.
The priest didn’t just lack empathy with the bereaved, he lacked a sense of what he was about as a mediator of Christ’s words of hope and comfort to those who mourn. His disconnect with the people around him was of a part with his disconnect with his liturgical function.
The Irish tradition of the wake allowed people to share stories and memories about their departed loved one. Often photographs and examples of their handiwork too. Quite often there was laughter and conviviality. This was the beginning of the long process of coping with the pain of loss.
Traditionally, the domestic rituals included prayer but there was no overspill into the religious service. The Church offered a different level of healing and hope, and an understanding that after death our lives belong to God who alone sees what is in the heart and whose measure for judging human worth may not be the same as ours.
The Catholic funeral rite offers a strong and clear-cut template, drawn from a rich treasury of Scripture, prayer and sacred music. Like any good template, it allows shading and variation to reflect the diverse ways in which we live and die. Catholics and Christians generally are a diverse lot, as the writer Hilaire Belloc observed.
They may be fervent or shoulder-shrugging, pompous or humble, jovial or combative, fixed or uncertain. This does not mean however that funeral liturgy should be a matter of ‘collaboration’ between an individual pastor and the family concerned.
The transcendent depth and beauty of Christian funeral rites must not be lost under a cornucopia of trivia and the distraction of ad hoc inputs. When Horatio bids a final farewell to the prince in Hamlet with the words “goodnight sweet prince, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”, he is echoing the final prayer of the Catholic funeral liturgy. Centuries later, the final commendation around the coffin is that
the departed soul be accompanied by angels into paradise. The prayer holds an ethereal beauty in its musical settings. But the most poignant thing about it is that it is the same prayer for princes and paupers alike.