Funerals and Eulogies


“A brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy” (Order of Christian Funerals 141).
I know that I’ll be treading on a few toes by saying this, but quite frankly I think that Catholic funerals have gone right off the rails!
These true stories are examples of what causes my concern.
A non-catholic couple that I know well recently attended the funeral Mass of a neighbour. A number of other people from the neighbourhood had also gone along to offer sympathy and support to the widower. This couple, and - as they discovered later - several others, were on the verge of walking out of the service by the time a third person got up to give a long speech in praise of the deceased. The person they were hearing described as a veritable saint bore no resemblance to the woman who for fifty years had made their lives very difficult through a campaign of writing nasty notes, poisoning trees and making false accusations. They found it hypocritical that relatives who had long since stopped visiting the deceased were publicly voicing her many virtues.
A funeral which I was present at some months ago also included several lengthy eulogies. An elderly friend was quite distressed by what she described as this “embarrassing pretence” and genuinely worried about the prospect of the same thing happening at her own funeral. Afterwards she was determined to make it very clear to her family that any such “unnecessary carry-on” was banned!
A friend tells the true story of taking her mother to a funeral Mass last year. Representatives from Rotary, RSL, etc spoke in glowing terms about the marvellous contribution the deceased had made to their organisations. Eventually the son stood up and spoke: “I know this probably isn’t the time or place”, he said, “but I can’t sit and listen to this any longer. My father may have been a wonderful Rotarian, etc but as a father he was never there when my brothers and I needed him and he neglected my mother dreadfully”. Apparently the congregation was quickly transformed from teary-eyed to open-mouthed!
Lex orandi, lex credendi: the way we pray expresses what we believe. What understanding of Catholic faith is communicated by the funeral liturgies I described above? I’d suggest that the impression is that we are saved by our own good works rather than by the grace of God. If enough people can be found to remind God of our numerous deeds, then our place in heaven is guaranteed! What of those poor beggars who have tried hard but haven’t made a success of their lives or who have no one to speak up for them?
These endless, over-blown eulogies make the church’s liturgy look like complete artifice – nothing to do with reality – when those in attendance know that their deceased friend, neighbour or colleague was no saint in real life. Even worse, they can make Catholics appear to be hypocrites because they convey the message that the church is a “society of saints” rather than a “school for sinners”. Having to be so virtuous must certainly make some people feel that they could never belong!
Yes, our funerals, like all our liturgy, need to be personal, but fundamentally the funeral liturgy celebrates our redemption through the paschal mystery. I hope that, when my time comes, someone might simply say: “For all her faults, we loved her still. Now we commend her to God’s loving mercy”.


Elizabeth Harrington