Every time that I attend a Protestant funeral or civic memorial service, I leave with the opinion that something was lacking — simply because I compare such occasions to Catholic funerals.
Catholic funerals are designed to use the occasion of a death to find renewed purpose, and hope, for survivors as they go forward with their lives. For this reason, Catholic funerals, even for strangers, can be inspiring.
How comforting are the words of the Scriptures selected by the Church for Catholic funerals. How wondrous is the thought that the deceased’s family and friends, despite their sorrow, are together in God’s house, assured of God’s strength and mercy in the Eucharist and in the Church’s beautiful liturgical prayers for the deceased, and indeed for all touched by the passing of the deceased.
Of course, Catholic funerals center upon the deceased. As a result, there has evolved in this country the now rather widespread custom of having at funeral Masses a eulogy given by a relative or good friend of the deceased.
At least one diocese, to my knowledge, has forbidden these eulogies at the funeral Mass itself, suggesting that such remarks be made at the wake the night before.
These restrictions are not because the deceased are seen as unworthy of being remembered, or that survivors should stamp out all memories of a loved one, but because Catholic funerals primarily are spiritual events and teaching moments.
Therefore, it is important that homilies at Catholic funerals are preached by a Church teacher ordained and commissioned for the purpose, empowered by grace, and trained in Catholic theology — a Catholic bishop, priest or deacon.
Homilies should emphasize Christian life, salvation in Jesus, and the hereafter. The basis of what is said in homilies should be the Scriptures read at the Mass. Specifically, the homily should not so recall the past as if physical death stopped a human life, but the future.
Eulogies in and of themselves are not necessarily bad, despite the fact that the eulogies may not always be as good as intended, especially if the person giving the eulogy is unaccustomed to public speaking, or emotional, or the comments not that impressive. The experience can be prolonged or uncomfortable for all.
Probably more often than not, the deceased person did live a life in which virtues and principles were followed, realizing that no one is perfect. The problem is that a eulogy very well may begin and end dwelling upon the deceased’s earthly life, ended by death, or upon the grief felt by loved ones.
Grief is a very painful human emotion. Priests know that grieving survivors need comfort. It helps to talk about the deceased, especially if what is being said in the process is a memory of good things. Therefore, most priests give some latitude in allowing these eulogies. Most priests try to accede to every wish a family may have regarding a funeral.
However, the Church, by long experience, knows that especially for grieving people, spiritual reassurance that the end of earthly life is not final, regardless even of terrible circumstances, and that Christian death is victory, is the most satisfying healing.
People have cause for hope when, mourning a loss, even intensely, they can find themselves, as well as the deceased, reflected in the Church’s teachings that God loves them, that God will strengthen them in all things, that God forgives, and that eternal peace and joy await anyone truly faithful to God. Even purgatory looks to eternal reward, not to the extinction of life.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.