Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Continuing our reflection on the nature of Catholic funerals, I would like to return again to the most essential facet of these rites surrounding death. As a Church, our great spiritual foundation is profoundly sacramental. As death approaches, it is especially appropriate for the Anointing of the Sick to be celebrated. It should be emphasized that this sacrament does not in any way meant that death is imminent – in fact, it is meant to be received anytime one’s physical health suffers, before surgery, during hospital stays, etc. In a particular way though, the Anointing of the Sick is also meant to prepare the soul to meet God. The prayers offered during this sacrament bring comfort to the dying. Most especially, the absolution of sin that can be part of this sacrament is essential. No one should be denied the opportunity to receive this sacrament in their final hours! I suggest that we all communicate to our loved ones that our wish would be for a priest to be called to administer this sacrament should we be in extreme need.
With this sacramental foundation, we turn again to the funeral Mass itself. The celebration of the Mass is the highest form of prayer that the Church can offer. The funeral Mass is offered first and foremost for the repose of the soul of the deceased person. Every Catholic ought to have a funeral Mass! To offer the Eucharist, the Church’s prayer of Thanksgiving, the prayer which unites us most perfectly to the Cross of Jesus Christ, the Cross which is the instrument of death’s defeat, is indeed the most perfect way to pray for those who have died.
Today however, this primary purpose of the funeral Mass is often lost. Many people think of the funeral primarily as a memorial service. Being good-natured and genuinely concerned for their friends and family, many people say that they want the funeral to be a celebration and they want everyone to laugh and have fun. This desire, in itself, is beautiful and generally unobjectionable but for two important things: (1) the funeral Mass is the Church’s prayer for the repose of the soul of the deceased, and (2) the emotion of grief is natural and should not be ignored, delayed, or glossed over. The funeral Mass is not intended by the Catholic Church to be a memorial service. Rather, the memories we hold dear are meant to fuel our prayer – inspired by the memories of our deceased loved one, we pray in thanksgiving for their life. Inspired by the faith that they held – or if they were not particularly devout, the faith that we hold – we pray that the gift of Christ’s Resurrection and mercy would lead them into Paradise.
The tendency to view funerals as memorial services has led to a bad “pastoral” practice, namely the inclusion of eulogies in funeral Masses. A eulogy, by definition, is an oration in praise of the deceased. The Rite of Christian Burial, however, explicitly forbids eulogies (Order of Christian Funerals 27). Rather, words of remembrance may be shared at the wake, during the Mass after Communion, or at the graveside. These words of remembrance are intended to speak briefly about the faith of the deceased person and remind those gathered to allow the faith of the deceased to inspire their own faith. Too often, eulogies become long biographies, detailing an individual’s education, family history, vacations, culinary prowess, personality quirks, and very often include anecdotes that contain details or language simply inappropriate for church. Often, it seems that people are impatient to get through Mass so they can get to the really important thing, the eulogy. Everyone, naturally, wants good things to be said about them after they die. And those memories and stories need to be shared! But the funeral Mass is simply the wrong time and place for them to be shared. They should instead be shared during the wake, or at a reception, or during gatherings of friends and family. There are countless moments when it is appropriate to eulogize. The funeral Mass, however, is not meant to praise the person (as a eulogy is), but to praise God for the gift of life, to pray for His mercy to be poured out abundantly, and to pray that the deceased enjoy eternal rest in God’s heavenly kingdom. Hyper-focus on eulogies deprives us of the fullness of the Church’s true pastoral ministry in prayer and accompaniment.
This may turn out to be the least-popular thing I have ever written. I write it because we have lost sight of what the funeral is meant to be. I hope that we can recover the true meaning of our Catholic celebrations surrounding death. I hope that a proper understanding and practice of words of remembrance can help us to grieve appropriately and to keep our attention fixed on Jesus Christ, the one who promises salvation. I hope that putting eulogies in their proper place (outside of Mass) can help us appreciate more deeply what the sacrament of the Eucharist gives us in times of sadness and how it enables us to pray even in the face of death. I hope that by reflecting on the liturgical rites of the Church, we can better understand the meaning and symbolism of the Church’s prayer and thus receive through that prayer the comfort, healing, and grace that God so desperately wants to give to those who mourn.