Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Speaking on Behalf of God

There was another provoking letter in The Irish Times today:

Sir, – The Bishop of Meath, Dr Michael Smith, has banned families from giving eulogies during funeral Masses (Home News, August 13th). Poems or playing of secular songs are also banned under a directive from the bishop.

It seems the bishop does not fully understand how people grieve; that in today’s world families share with others their loved one’s life, and where better than at the funeral Mass? The long path of loss begins after that Mass and knowing you have honoured your loved one well, before the community, helps you begin to live without them.

What is so wrong with a secular poem or secular song? It does not offend God; it seems this offends the Bishop of Meath. Is his God so narrow-minded? So un-open to the hearts and minds of grieving relatives? If so, do we want to have that last moment with our loved one in his house?

The bishop needs to do some thinking. – Yours, etc,


Redford Park,


Co Wicklow.

The line that irks me the most is "It does not offend God". How on Earth does Margaret Kennedy of Redford Park, Greystones know that secular songs at funerals don't offend God? Whence comes this popular readiness to read the mind of the Almighty? Isn't it just a tiny bit presumptious?

"Well, how does the Bishop of Meath know what God thinks?" Agree with him or not (and I definitely do agree with him about funeral eulogies), the Bishop is at least speaking from a tradition that has been thinking about God for centuries, that has worked out a coherent and consistent system of thought about God, and that claims a supernatural Revelation-- one that it has backed through countless martyrdoms and persecutions. I do think this gives a spokesman of that theology more weight than somebody writing a letter to a newspaper, or calling into a phone-in show, or holding forth at a dinner party.

"Where better than at the funeral Mass?" Well, at the the grave-side, at the reception, at the wake...anywhere except at a funeral, which should be a dignified and restrained affair. God knows us best and does not need character references when we go to Him.

There are a hundred reasons to oppose eulogies at funeral Masses, but I would like to concentrate on one in particular, one that carries a special weight with me. Dr. Margaret Kennedy feels that families should "share their loved one's life", and come away from a funeral Mass feeling they have "honoured" their loved one. But how on Earth do you share an entire life, or do any kind of justice to it, in a single eulogy? Wouldn't most of us wince if we could hear our own funeral eulogies, and probably feel that they described a different person entirely? Wouldn't we feel the most important stuff had been left out? I would draw back from any attempt to fit the life, personality, history, character and virtues of anybody I know into a speech, however long it was. I would feel that "a few words" would be, not only inadequate, but a travesty. Remembering a loved one and honouring his or her memory is a task for years and decades-- preferably for generations. It's much better not even to attempt it at such a short ceremony.

In fact, I imagine an outright ban on funeral eulogies takes a lot of pressure off people (a point another letter-writer to the Times makes today). Nobody wants to feel they are selling their loved ones short in any way, and probably many people who would rather not have a eulogy feel obliged to say the dreaded "few words", since it is the done thing.

Having been married little more than a month ago, I can barely remember a word that the priest said in his homily-- even though I was making a special, even a desperate effort to concentrate, knowing how much effort he put into it. I just didn't take it in, because my mind was racing. I think the same thing is even truer about funerals. Fine words are wasted.

At a funeral Mass, we can honour our loved ones best by using the words that the Church has given us-- the words that give the same dignity to every departed soul, no matter how many mourners are at the funeral, or what that person has achieved in the eyes of the world.

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