Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Reclaiming the Beauty of the Catholic Funeral

Today the Holy See released a new document concerning the dignity and reverence that ought to be shown towards the bodies of the deceased. In some ways, it seems shocking that the Church should have to put some of the things found in the document into writing.  For instance, it reminds us that if, for legitimate reasons cremation is chosen, it is not permissible to scatter the deceased's ashes, divide them up among family members, keep them in a private home, or place them in pieces of jewelry.  The document reminds me of the warning labels that sometimes appear on various products.  "Warning: Do not drink the bleach in this container."  It strikes me as somewhat sad that the Church needs to remind us that we shouldn't divide Nana up into lockets to be distributed as parting favors to those who attend the "Celebration of her life." But, that is where we are.

Funerals have taken a bad turn for the worse in recent years. I remember watching on television scenes from the funeral of a tragedy that occurred several years ago. The Catholic funeral was the setting, but it wasn't the main show.  The main show was the endless amount of speakers (none of whom had much to say) who occupied way more time than the actual Mass did. Interspersed among the speeches by various politicians and public officials was something akin to a variety show.  Different persons and groups performed various songs.  It was pretty difficult to remember in the midst of all of this that the Funeral Mass was actually about God. Funerals often devolve into being opportunities for someone to have their moment to give the eulogy.  I cannot tell you how many people over the years have begun their eulogy by saying, "The job of giving the eulogy fell to me.  I really didn't want to do it, but somebody had to." I always want to say, "No!  You really don't need to!"  While I have indeed listened to some--some--very well written "words of remembrance," the disasters far outweigh the good ones. I've had people use the eulogy (I know, we say that they aren't eulogies, but that's what they almost always are) to attack family members. I've had people use profanity, deny the existence of God, and reveal the faults of the deceased. In one memorable instance, I recall the eulogist revealing how he and the deceased used to visit a brothel together.  Safe to say, the widow was duly mortified.

Music . . . it's become "These are our five favorite songs."  Whether they have anything to do with the mystery of Christian life, death, and resurrection are not really a concern.  "We just like these songs." Funeral homes often provide a list of the "top ten" songs. Then the family selects them. They are often bad songs or trite.  At a funeral, we have the opportunity to be solemn, reverent, and to provide something so much better than cheap entertainment. We have the opportunity to preach--by the way we worship--that life actually has profound meaning, that death is not the end, and that our prayers are effective. Instead, we settle and promote entertainment.  

The Catholic liturgy is solemn, simple, and sublime. It's true that it takes a little bit of effort to submit ourselves to its beauty and its transcendence.  It can be tempting to flee from such awesomeness and mystery and throw ourselves into balloons, talent shows, and bad poetry. One that always makes me cringe begins, "Do not stand at my grave and cry, I am not there. I did not die."  Sorry, yes you did. That's why we are all at your funeral today. 

Maybe we are working backwards, but the Church's reiteration of its teaching on the proper manner of burying the dead might be a good start to reclaiming the magnificence of the Funeral Liturgy. There is nothing quite so serious as Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. The Catholic Liturgy is able quite beautifully to address the Last Things by its sober, simple, and sublime worship. It reminds us that the deceased's life and death are incorporated into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. 

Shortly after Pope John Paul II died, I had a funeral where the only mourner in our huge church was the funeral director. I chanted all of the prayers and the cantor chanted all of the propers. I remember thinking, "Doesn't matter if you are the pope or a man whose family and friends have all predeceased him. We all get the same funeral." Convincing people that the Funeral Liturgy doesn't need to be a talent show or a concert of their five favorite songs is not easy. But, we really do need to start turning the tide. Perhaps today's document is a step in the right direction. The body deserves reverence. So do the funeral rites.


  1. I have not been to a Catholic funeral Mass that had a eulogy. When we planned my father's, we were given a list of songs to chose from, a list of readings and that was it. The Mass was beautiful. If there are excesses during funerals, at least in the Church, it is because the pastor allows them. Funeral home "memorials" are just sad.

  2. Although I understand and support most of your comments, it is indeed sad to note that the Church makes exceptions extensively and blatantly for those of wealth and privilege like Sen. Edward Kennedy--with the Cardinal in attendance--but when it comes to average regularly attending and contributing parishioner Joe in the pew, suddenly there are all kinds of no-exception rules. Where is the Church's reverence in this?

  3. Thank you, Fr. Barnes!

  4. What an interesting perspective with all those horror stories. Many people today choose to wear inappropriate attire too but if the pendulum swings too far the other way, funerals may become too regimented and cold. The deceased's loved-ones are looking for comfort and meaning during a difficult time and such awkward and inappropriate moments arise from that. I've been to funerals where eulogies weren't allowed or the priests gave sermons that were devoid of any kind of tenderness. It only added to the anxiety people felt. This is something I wouldn't wish on anyone who is grieving.