Sometimes I have those self-pity moments when I ask myself, “Why, again, did I sign up for this?” — or when I move beyond the self-pity, narcissistic attitude into high sarcasm (in my thoughts, not in my words and deeds) as a coping mechanism.
The feelings and sarcastic thoughts come when the parish (or I) receives what is perceived as unreasonable requests or demands. These same feelings come upon me when I receive what I melodramatically characterize as “hate mail.” We all receive these types of demands and mail.
The demanding and unreasonable requests and the attitude attached with them mostly are evident in wedding and funeral planning. Yes, now even funerals are becoming as difficult to plan as weddings because of the increased frequency of cremation, which allows the funeral to be delayed and scheduled when convenient for the family (not necessarily the parish). Priests honestly can say, “I can’t come that day as I have a funeral,” when we do not want to attend a function being proposed in two months.
The planning process has lengthened for funerals, affording families more time to conjure up ideas. I have had sheet music ordered special from publishing houses and have had caterers show up at the wake to serve hors d’oeuvres — all because the family doesn’t know what to do with themselves because there is too much time between the death and the burial. The music requests are becoming more and more peculiar. Recently, the son of the deceased wanted “Memories” sung as the gathering hymn because she loved cats and she has left so many memories behind (probably cats, too). A few weeks after that, there was a request for “The Circle of Life” from Broadway’s “The Lion King.”
The parish’s philosophy permits a wide parameter for any song (within reason) to be played instrumentally as a prelude, and if the family insists on the lyrics, they will be reviewed to assure the words are appropriate. Even with this amount of flexibility, families are still angry, because, “How dare you deny how we decide to bury our grandmother.”
Lately, funerals and weddings are playing a frustrating game of “can you top this?” We all have had the wedding from hell; now it is the funeral from hell (not the deceased’s destination). The parish has the wedding information packet posted on its website for couples to read (which they don’t). The parish offers weddings on Saturdays at noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. There is a 5:30 p.m. vigil Mass to which the parish has to give attention. Lately couples submit the form and in the comment section state the wedding must be at 5 p.m. because the reception is at 7 p.m. and to have the wedding earlier would mean there is too much downtime between the ceremony and the beginning of cocktails. When told that the latest we can do is 4 p.m., it is clear that “no” is not a word that is understood anymore.
Granted, my community has three churches, and, yes, it could use another church, but then they say, “We will bring our own priest.” Then we say, “But the organist needs to be at the vigil Mass,” and they respond, “Well, we have a friend who can play the piano.” You begin to wonder whether some people have never not gotten their way. Again, we try to be accommodating by allowing the wedding to be held at one of the other churches and officiated by a priest friend, but the parish can’t have a guest priest and a guest organist because a staff person needs to be there, too. Who is going to unlock the door?
It is fascinating. I wonder if when they call to set an appointment for the dentist and the receptionist states that office hours are Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., would they say, “My appointment must be Wednesday at 6 p.m.”? And when the receptionist states that the dentist is not available then, would they say, “I can bring my own dentist and my best friend is a hygienist”? Setting the wedding date and time can be draining, and this is before we even have discussed what songs will be sung and played yet.
There is a fine line between being a servant to the people and being a slave to their desires, especially because we have committed to celebrating the sacraments and rites with sacred dignity. The diplomatic negotiation to assure sanctity without exercising too much authority is a delicate balance. When the balance is not perceived by the family, then the “hate mail” begins. “Hate” is an exaggeration, but you know the type of mail — we all have received it. Typically, the note begins with the normal pleasantries, asking how I am doing or indicating one thing they enjoyed about the funeral or wedding. After a few cordial sentences, the words we have all grown to anticipate and have learned to hate appears: “however” or its sister word “but.” These two words are used to introduce a statement that contrasts with or contradicts something that has been said previously. My favorite contrasting phrase is, “Father, I am sure you are a good priest, however ...” and then the litany of reasons I am not a good priest is revealed.
I received a note one day from a displeased listener at a conference at which I spoke. I presented burying the dead through the Catholic perspective as a corporal work of mercy. I portrayed the work as important, caring for the dignity of the person in death as we would care for anyone in life (giving them food, clothes, shelters, etc). I showed a few slides of the funeral rite and cemeteries with the thrust being: If society (including the Church) keeps acquiring land for the purpose of burying the dead, eventually there could be too little land to feed the hungry. The greeting card lauded the presentation; however, the diversity of peoples in the PowerPoint presentation was lacking. I wrote back and thanked him for his letter, though I was thinking that death, if anything, is the greatest equalizer, as we all are going to die. The author’s card was polite and kind in its presentation, which is a reminder to take to heart the truth that is being shared.
The most surprising “hate mail” was from the father of a groom three weeks after the wedding. The groom’s parents were parishioners (past tense — they left the parish because of the alleged incident). He commented on everything I said and how I said it. It was a strenuous wedding to plan as too many people were involved with the families and all wanted their own way. They hired two wedding planning companies who did not heed the family requests, though the parish accepted the requests. The planners said they did not see it as their job to fulfill those requests. I decided the family had already tried and convicted me in their minds, so why bother sharing all the email correspondence between the planners and me (which would have exonerated me). It was not worth the trouble. They were disappointed in the wedding, and they need someone to blame. It is these moments I feel more like a slave (the whipping post) than the servant. It all comes with the territory for which I signed up.
FATHER PATRICK M. CARRION is pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore and the director of the Baltimore Archdiocesan Office of Cemetery Management.