Emotion of eulogies at funerals upsets the stressed-out Hierarchy

Over the last few years, like many other people, I have attended a number of funerals and listened to heartfelt eulogies; from a father about to bury his 18-year-old son; from a half-weeping/half-laughing woman recalling her mother; from a sister paying tribute to a brother who was her inseparable companion in childhood; to a gay man saying a passionate goodbye to his partner.

On all these occasions, the congregation comprised not just regular church-goers, but the great army of semi-detached, lapsed, disaffected and alienated Catholics. It seems that of all the things the Catholic Church does for its members, burying them with dignity is the most valued.

Clearly, I must have been attending different kinds of funerals from Archbishop Sean Brady and the members of the Catholic Church Liturgy Commission. They, it appears, experienced such eulogies as "going on for ever" and "over the top"; as "unnecessary duplication" of the more formal aspects of the Catholic rite; as "causing unnecessary severe emotional stress" for the family; as an interruption of "the flow of the liturgy"; as a "do-it-yourself-liturgy"; or even as "offensive" to certain members of the congregation.

And they seem bewildered by the offertory gifts brought by the families. The Archbishop's spokesman told the Marian Finucane programme during the week one family even used the deceased person's hat.

Under aesthetic and emotional stress, the Catholic Hierarchy has retreated to its traditional safety blanket of directives and bureaucracy. This week, various church spokesmen described on radio - in some cases with what seemed to me almost relish - the rules, regulations and "appropriate" aesthetic standards of the funeral rite. And if the faithful refused to be guided? Then they could, as it were, eat cake, in the funeral parlours, local hotels, newspapers or wet and windy gravesides.

All this unruly emotion is clearly upsetting the Hierarchy. And they are responding like the children's hospitals did in the old days, when the sight of children crying as their parent departed upset the authorities so much that they banned parents altogether and institutional order was restored, but at a terrible psychological price for the children concerned. The Hierarchy seems to be making a similar mistake by banning eulogies.

Sick and frightened children about to be separated from their parents are in their hour of greatest psychological need. So, too, are families about to face the final parting from a loved one. How the church responds to this painful crisis for individuals will determine in large part their future relationship with their members.

Because trust, the bedrock of any relationship, is built not simply on repeated interactions, with each interaction being of equal and cumulative weight, but rather on how someone is responded to in their hour of greatest need.

For most Irish people, the Catholic Church is the institution which still best represents their sense of community. The church, therefore, has "ownership" of deeply valued rites and rituals. In addition, church buildings are usually the most sacred (and spacious) gathering points available to the local community. At that point when they are most distressed and dependent, families come looking for those resources.

But they are bringing with them a set of expectations shaped by their lives in modern society. In every area of their lives, people in modern societies are no longer prepared to conform to some prescribed set of expectations and rules. They want to express their lives in ways that are meaningful to them. They want freedom and choice. They want an opportunity to publicly acknowledge and celebrate the uniqueness of the individual life of the deceased.

After all, if the great and the good can be accorded tributes and eulogies, why not the ordinary person in the comfort and grandeur of their own church? They bring a rich array of highly symbolic personal items that signify the character of the deceased for them. They are not afraid of expressing deep feelings in public.

It is because the evangelical churches are in tune with those values that they continue to expand and thrive, even in an era of declining church attendance and widespread alienation from organised religion.

By creatively combining the formality of church ceremonies with personal testimony, the evangelical churches have found the magic formula to engage people. Far from backing away from strong emotion, they have correctly seen that it may be the vehicle for the meaningful spiritual experiences that people desire.

Maybe the Hierarchy is afraid that the eulogies, personal gifts and music revive the more primitive, highly charged feelings associated with traditional burial rites and wakes. But the Catholic Church used to be very good at managing such instincts.

In the past, it successfully incorporated pagan rituals - those great emotional and communal excesses that bubble up from our nature - into elegant but emotionally expressive ceremonies. It harnessed and transformed the oldest pagan celebrations of solstice and spring into the most enduring Christian festivals.

It is now passing up a golden opportunity to do the same with the unique blend of personal and emotional needs that people nowadays want to express at funerals. But, instead of embracing change, sharing ownership of the rites, opening up the church, the Hierarchy's first, instinctive response is to restrict, exclude, control. Instead of consulting and negotiating with the faithful - not just the devout, but the marginally attached and alienated - it issues directives.

Instead of reaching out to all those who want to be part of the church it adopts a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. But Irish people were born into that faith. They therefore regard its rights and rituals as part of their birthright. They cannot easily go elsewhere for their funeral rites.

OF COURSE, there have to be some outer limits on the content and length of the eulogy, on the choice of "offerings" and music. But apart from things that are illegal, violent, racist or directly contrary to the fundamental Christian message, I cannot easily think of things that might be considered objectionable. Aesthetics are too subjective, too time- and class-bound to be of much use.

Consider this. A teenager dies and his family want to play one minute of his favourite music on his "ghetto blaster" at the funeral Mass. Will that one minute of absolute exuberance and wild energy switched off to total silence capture the mystery of life and death better than any formal homily?

Archbishop Brady said that the purpose of the funeral rite was "to support, console and uplift the participants". When my father died 13 years ago, I had that experience, buoyed up by the ancient and familiar prayers and readings. All his life, my father wore a hat. Had I had the opportunity then, I might well have chosen that hat, not just as one symbol of his unique style and character, but as a private metaphor for what was lost.

Those members of the Hierarchy who aesthetically recoil from such mundane objects of loss and longing should go back and read the New Testament, with its homely images of bread, wine, grains of wheat, oil lamps, labourer's wages. Their real challenge is to incorporate the homely eulogies, offerings, symbols and memorabilia that people bring to funeral Masses today into a message that is universal, consolatory and redemptive.

Originally published in The Irish Times. 

Posted: 01 April 2000