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'If We Die with the Lord, We Shall Live with the Lord:' Reflections on the Order of Christian Funerals
Coming from an Irish Catholic family, I can list everyone who was and, especially, who was not in attendance at family funerals! It’s a trait that is not reserved exclusively to the Irish.
I don’t mean to make light of a particularly difficult time in people’s lives. In fact, there are few occasions in our experience that call for heightened sensitivity as much as the death of a loved one. People tend not to forget what happens at a wake or funeral ... ever. That fact should make priests, deacons and pastoral ministers all the more careful and solicitous with grieving families.
Among the most beautiful aspects of the Roman Catholic liturgy are the rituals used by the Church in its “Order of Christian Funerals.” Even those who are not Catholic remark how consoling and comforting our funeral prayers and customs are.
There is one area, however, especially within the Catholic funeral Mass, that has become increasingly neuralgic and problematic for pastors, priests and people, and that is the giving of eulogies or other remarks in the context of Mass.
The “Order of Christian Funerals” states specifically that following the prayer after communion
“a member or a friend of the family may speak in remembrance of the deceased before the final commendation begins (no. 170).”
This “remembrance” is not the same as the “homily” or sermon after the Gospel which is reserved by the Church’s law to an ordained priest or deacon (canon 767, para. 1). The priest’s (or deacon’s) homily, according to the ritual,
“should always be given at the funeral liturgy but, never any kind of eulogy. ... Through the homily, the community should receive the consolation and the strength to face the death of one of its members with the hope that has been nourished by the proclamation of the saving word of God (no. 141).”
The issue is not so much the homily, which should be thoughtfully prepared and sincerely delivered by the priest or deacon in a way appropriate to the occasion and those gathered to pray for the deceased. Problems sometimes arise regarding the “remembrance” delivered following the prayer after communion. Who should give it? What should it say (or not say)? How long should it be? The “Order of Christian Funerals” does not give answers to these questions. Neither does the Diocese.
The expectation of the Church in giving us these funeral rites and of the Diocese is that the ritual will be observed and that the parish priest will provide guidance to and will work with the grieving family to make good and appropriate decisions so that the funeral Mass serves the holy purpose for which the Church offers it to people at their time of loss. And that is an important point to keep in mind: the Church GIVES us these rites; we, the community of faith including the presiding priest, don’t make them up ourselves as we go along. At times, appropriate adaptations might need to be made in special circumstances but, ultimately, that is the responsibility of the parish priest attending to the family.
The “Order of Christian Funerals” indicates “a” member or friend of the family “may speak in remembrance.” It is not required and neither the funeral Mass nor the memory of the deceased is diminished if such a remembrance is not given. The ritual limits this remembrance to one person speaking and that is the practice usually observed in the parishes of the Diocese of Trenton.
The idea behind this practice is not to restrict people but, rather, to maintain respect, reverence and decorum for both the deceased and the Mass itself. Many people have special memories of the deceased but the funeral Mass is neither the time nor the place for everyone with such a memory to speak. The grieving family, if it desires such a remembrance at the funeral Mass, should decide on and select the person who will speak, and should inform the parish priest ahead of time. And the speaker should be a family member or friend who is not so stricken with grief that the delivery of a remembrance is impeded or cannot be completed.
The remembrance should be just that: a remembrance and a fitting tribute, not a retelling of the deceased person’s entire life history or a presentation of their curriculum vitae. It should not be lengthy, certainly not longer than the homily. Nor should it be a comedy monologue or joke fest about the deceased. Good humor can be appropriate and can certainly lift the veil of sadness that a family or community feels in the moment but jokes themselves are not the purpose of the remembrance provided for in the ritual. “Off-color” remarks are never appropriate at a funeral Mass. Funny stories are better saved for and shared at the wake or at the luncheon following the funeral Mass and burial.
The remembrance at the funeral Mass should be an opportunity for the speaker to lift up the goodness of the deceased and his/her importance and relevance to those gathered to pray for him/her at a funeral Mass. It is always suggested that the speaker share his/her remarks with the parish priest ahead of time, whenever possible.
The “Order of Christian Funerals” as given to us by the Catholic Church should be an experience of faith, hope and loving comfort for those grieving the death of a loved one, remembering and respecting the one who has died and whom we offer back in the funeral Mass to the God who created him/her. The Church and the Diocese hope that the ritual observed serves that holy purpose.
It is the responsibility of individual parishes in the Diocese to develop fitting and appropriate customs and practices to achieve that end, including those surrounding the remembrance given at the funeral Mass. Those customs and practices may differ slightly from parish to parish but the general expectation of the Church and the Diocese is that the “Order of Christian Funerals” is followed as given to us by the Church for the consolation and hope of those experiencing grief at the death of a loved one.