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Online Edition - Vol. VI, No. 4: June / July 2000

Last Things
Eulogies: do they belong in Catholic funerals ?

by James Hitchcock

Eulogies, defined as speeches praising a person who has died, should not be given at Catholic funerals, according to Archbishop Seán Brady, president of the Irish bishops' conference. Official liturgical directives do not allow them, except for brief personal remarks following Mass.

When I was growing up I attended hundreds of funerals, as a server and a choir boy. All them were in the same church, most of them conducted by the same priest, who year after year preached the same sermon, which was to remind the mourners that they too would die and should be prepared to do so, and to urge them to pray for the soul of the deceased. What more needed to be said?

Archbishop Brady thinks that eulogies detract from the Mass itself and are often seen as the real center of the liturgy. In the process the Christian meaning of death is obscured.

The main problem with eulogies is that they have to be unreservedly positive -- no one wants to hear anything critical about the deceased. Sometimes this creates an unreal situation, as in the film, whose title I forget, where three men attending the funeral of a friend reject everything the rabbi says about the deceased, insisting that "that ain't Hymie", finally discovering that indeed it is not -- they are at the wrong funeral!

This compulsory praise includes a compulsory insistence that the deceased is already in heaven, indeed has always been one of God's favorite people, probably now sitting in that privileged place that Jesus rebuked his apostles for coveting.

The old funeral liturgy was somber, with black vestments and mournful chant, the most shattering of which was the " Dies Irae " ("day of wrath"), reminding people that they would have to answer for themselves on that day "when even the just will need intercession". Since the Second Vatican Council, the emphasis of the service changed to hope, and white vestments, symbolic of the Resurrection, are now always used.

But hope is not the same as presumption, which is precisely what some funerals now are. Another joke tells of the man who died at the same time as Mother Teresa of Calcutta and found himself a few places behind her at the Pearly Gates. He is complacent that he will be admitted until he hears Saint Peter exclaim sternly, "But Teresa, you could have done a lot more."

Mother Teresa herself would have insisted that she could have done a lot more. It is one of the characteristics of saints that they are acutely aware of their sins, of how completely they depend on God's mercy, of how little they "deserve" at God's hands. But modern sensibilities have subtly changed hope -- that a merciful God will grant me salvation -- into arrogant certainty.

Once when I was "channel-surfing" I saw a Catholic funeral on television and stopped to see who it was. It turned out to be a figure from the sports world, a man famous for his prodigious drinking and multiple marriages. The eulogists seemed to be vying with one another in talking about the deceased's drinking capacity, which elicited loud guffaws from the congregation, all this interspersed with sentimental assurances that the deceased was now in heaven, the only logical inference being that God rewards drunkenness.

This kind of abuse is built into the nature of a eulogy. Even if the eulogist is aware of the deceased's perhaps considerable faults, he dare not hint that the dearly departed is not in heaven. An unfortunate result is that it forestalls people's praying for the dead, which used to be regarded as a solemn duty.

Several priests who spoke about Archbishop Brady's decree pointed out that criticism of it reveals how some Catholics have ceased to understand the Mass, or the Christian doctrine of salvation. The funeral is no longer a divine mystery but is merely a ceremony to remember the deceased and help the living cope with their loss. It ceases to have any supernatural meaning, except in the purely sentimental insistence that the deceased is in heaven.

Many Catholics no longer practice their faith, and no longer believe in it. They are Catholics only in a social sense. Funerals are one of the few times when they attend church, and the eulogy now often caters to this secular understanding of the faith, a ceremony in which people participate out of a sense of tradition or family solidarity, with no significance beyond that.

James Hitchcock, history professor at St. Louis University and Catholic author, writes a bi-weekly column for the Catholic press.

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