Preserving the dignity of funerals

Music and eulogies remain sensitive issues

I try to keep an open mind about many issues. So every now and then when guidelines are issued to priests on the conduct of funerals, I’ve sympathised with the clergy when the inevitable complaints begin. The two most sensitive issues are eulogies and music.

I fully understand that eulogies are not part of the Catholic Mass. According to (and it’s on the internet, so it must be true); “Contrary to common assumption, the purpose of the funeral Mass is not to celebrate the life of the deceased but to offer worship to God for Christ’s victory over death, to comfort the mourners with prayers, and to pray for the soul of the deceased. Relatives or friends who wish to speak of the deceased’s character and accomplishments can do so at a prayer service to be held in a home or funeral home or at the graveside following the rite of committal.

It also says that “the celebrant may express a few words of gratitude about the person’s life in his homily, or he may allow a relative or a friend to say a few words about the deceased during the concluding rite. The remarks must be brief and under no circumstances can the deceased person be referred to as being in Heaven. Only the Church has the authority to canonise.”

Official advice

It was only when I looked this up that I learned about the Heaven part. I had no idea that was a no-no.

With regard to music, the official advice is that only sacred music should be played. Again, I sympathise with the argument. I Did It My Way is for the wake, not the church.

Fortunately, I have not been obliged to attend many funerals, but I did a fortnight ago for the most wonderful neighbour. She was a great lady, who reared a large family well known for their gifts in music and Irish. I really admired her dignified bearing, kindness and gentleness. Though sad that she had died, I was grateful that she’d had a peaceful death at home.

I’ve been extremely busy recently as my husband has been working abroad but when I heard she died I knew for certain I was not missing the funeral. Apart from my desire to sympathise with the family and mark my respect to her, I knew the talented family would play and sing and it would be a wonderful occasion. I was not disappointed and it was a moving and dignified tribute.

And it concluded the debate for me on the official guidelines. Some of the music chosen was not Church music but it was solemn and sacred it in its own way. If they’d had to play strictly by the rules, we would have lost out.

One of her sons spoke during the concluding rite and it would have been an injustice if we had been denied his words. His mother deserved his tribute and we learned some things about her I hadn’t known. He did refer to her being in Heaven, and frankly if she’s not, then no one is.


And anyway, isn’t that belief what the whole thing is supposed to be about? People accept sacrifice and pain but they keep going in the hope and faith that in death they’ll see God and their loved ones who’ve gone before. I think the majority of the congregation would be severely taken aback to learn they’re not supposed to mention what they assumed was a certainty – for those so deserving of course.

I know eulogies were rare years ago, and I suspect the desire to make them was inspired by seeing them on the telly, but I have yet to hear one that didn’t move and warm the hearts of the congregation. I’ve never heard one that was inappropriate and they’re always met with a genuine, heartfelt applause.

Furthermore, I recall a correspondent to one of the national papers making a good point some years ago when this row broke out. His family had been told they could only play particular music and say limited things at a relative’s funeral. Yet whenever someone famous died, the rulebook was flung out and it was a case of Anything Goes for the celebrity.

Now, this is the opposite of what Catholicism should represent – which is equality in everything, but most especially death. So if there’s a parish that reins in the hoi polloi, then it should be equally strict with the A-listers.

I know religion is not a democracy and giving the people what they want isn’t necessarily the duty of any authority. I support the obligation of priests to stop funerals turning into circuses. But once dignity is preserved, it’s clear the people have spoken, and sang, and they should be listened to.