Last year Dr. Thomas Long, Professor of Preaching at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, published an interesting book Accompany Them With Singing - The Christian Funeral. In this modern study of Christian funeral rites, he laments the loss of the other worldly and transcendent at funerals and the all too common emphasis on the earthly life of the deceased instead.
It's said that baby-boomers are not using traditional funeral rites to bury their parents and even sometimes ignoring their parents' wishes for a church funeral. The convenience and perhaps lesser expense of a service at the funeral home seems to make more sense to many of the survivors, especially since many of them no longer attend church regularly. Besides, since funeral directors will do just about anything you pay them to do, there are not likely to be many restrictions on the family's funeral requests.
The majority of those seeking a Catholic funeral are sincere and devout. Some others, however, stand out. There is the group that seems agnostic about whether heaven exists. The funeral is primarily a celebration of the deceased's earthly accomplishments. Even well meaning families have fallen into the trap; you've seen the Worship Aids - "A Celebration of the Life of ..." You'll hear that the deceased lives on through the descendants s/he left behind and in their memories and the stories they will tell. No one should be sad, because the deceased doesn't want us to be. There is usually no mention of faith, religion, God or the Catholic church in the often obligatory eulogy at these funerals. In fact, the admission that "Joe wasn't a church-goer, but a good person" is a pretty common refrain. Coming together as a group is an opportunity to pay tribute to the deceased, not necessarily to share the Eucharist. Nature scenes and secular poetry are often featured on the memorial cards. The animistic poem "Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep" is a favorite. It ends not with death and the promise of resurrection but the odd assertion that "I did not die." Catholic clergy have read this poem and/or allowed it at funerals! (One of the prayers in the Catholic committal service reminds us that even Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus, his friend and asks Jesus to comfort us in our grief.)
Another group is pretty sure heaven exists, and certain that the deceased is already there. They're sometimes engaged in their favorite earthly pastime, often cooking, gardening or golfing, or helping God organize heaven. Sometimes God appears to have called the deceased home to heaven because God needed them. Anyone who ever mentions "purgatory" is under suspicion, but it is especially incorrect to even whisper it at funerals. The longstanding practice of having masses said for the soul's release from purgatory appears to have morphed into an opportunity to have their name published in the bulletin, announced at mass or keep their memory alive on earth.
In many cases, the least churched generation in history is demanding (and sometimes being given) the most control ever of the Church's funeral rites, sometimes by the very generation of church leaders who failed so miserably to catechize them in the 70's and 80's. Everyone wants a funeral like the Kennedy's or Sonny Bono's or Princess Diana's. That usually means at least several speakers, lots of patriotic and secular music and plenty of flowers. Worship aids, originally designed to help the mourners follow the liturgy, now are packed with photos, and farewells to the deceased. Personalization in each and every detail of the funeral is the order of the day. Sociologists tell us this is a particular characteristic of the boomer generation.
A Catholic funeral properly celebrated and with appropriate family participation is infinitely more consoling than any number of speeches or songs could be. Even those not expecting grace often receive it. A funeral liturgy is a priceless opportunity to evangelize family and their friends and reintroduce them to the dignity and consoling beauty of a Catholic funeral. Nearly everyone listens intently during funeral homilies, especially for the kind of hope the world cannot give. Nearly all priests and ministers would truly miss praying at funerals. It's only when funerals are morphed by over-personalization into something only resembling a Catholic liturgy that they become a strain. The more secular they become, the less hope they can offer. The words of the liturgy are true: Almighty God, all our hope is in you.
Why exactly shouldn't a Catholic funeral mass have "Danny Boy," "When the Saints go Marching In," or a doleful broadway tune for a communion reflection? Good question, especially when we all know that wherever they're used, they're never challenged. What's the difference between a eulogy and Words of Remembrance? Another good question. We'll take up the Catholic Church's liturgical norms for funerals in subsequent posts.