Funeral rites and wrongs

Over twenty years ago, Bruce Wilson claimed in his book, ‘Can God Survive in Australia?’ that the churches had failed conspicuously in their handling of those rites of passage for which nominal Christians and even non-Christians still seek our ministry. With just enough ability at the organ console to have been a floating spare organist in Sydney for weddings and funerals of every tradition and denomination during my student days I have always agreed with him. ‘From the sublime to the ridiculous’ describes without any exaggeration my experience of both weddings and funerals during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

In that era it was still widely believed that funerals should proclaim the good news of the Lord’s victory over sin and death in such a way as to bring hope and strength to the mourners. Many Anglican and Roman Catholic clergy refused any kind of eulogy. Indeed, the common fault in our tradition was a rattling off of the funeral liturgy in such a way that if one were inattentive for a few seconds, the solitary mention of the deceased’s name would be missed. Back then I thought it was a pity that so many opportunities for the Gospel were overlooked when all that needed to happen was for the clergyman, without necessarily embarking on a full-blown eulogy, to weave into his homily aspects of the deceased’s life or circumstances that illustrate the goodness and love of God.

Thirty years later we seem to be at the other extreme. Not long ago I was asked to play the organ for a funeral in a large suburban Roman Catholic church. The deceased was a young mother whose children attended the parish school. Her death had been tragic. The wonderful love and pastoral care with which the parish community supported the husband and children was apparent to all. But the funeral itself was a culture shock. For half an hour beforehand, a selection of the woman’s favourite pop songs was played over the sound system. As the ‘liturgy’ progressed, schmaltzy secular poetry replaced the first two Scripture readings, separated by ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’. (One of the readers, obviously accustomed to reading at Mass, blurted out ‘This is the Word of the Lord;’ nobody realized it wasn’t, for they all responded ‘Thanks be to God’!) At least we had a real Gospel reading. Then a series of tearful eulogies followed before the priest gave a short homily about ‘love’ in general, but, again, without saying anything of the paschal mystery. The most traumatic part of it all was when a range of people, including a couple of the deceased’s small children, were herded to the lectern for the Prayers of the Faithful. Each in turn dissolved into tears. They were all praised for being ‘so brave’ – which, of course, they were. But still nothing about Jesus and his dying and rising. The preface to the Eucharistic Prayer had been written for the occasion, speaking only of God’s love shown to us through the deceased’s life. The rest of the liturgy suffered constant paraphrase and adjustment on the part of the celebrant.

The point is that this dumbing down of the Gospel in order to focus only on the deceased is the antithesis of what the 1969 Introduction to the Funeral Rites of the Catholic Church says: ‘In the funeral rites the Church celebrates the paschal mystery of Christ. Those who in baptism have become one with the dead and risen Christ will pass with him from death to life, to be purified in soul and welcomed into the fellowship of the saints in heaven. They look forward in blessed hope to his second coming and the bodily resurrection of the dead.’

No real pastor has managed to be totally unbending in sorting out what will happen at funerals. It is self evident that the liturgy should be culturally relevant and pastorally sensitive. But since the funeral of Princess Diana in Westminster Abbey it has become more and more difficult to maintain a sense of proportion, especially with families on the edge of parish life. And so it was just weeks afterward that I was pressured, five minutes before a funeral, to allow two extra relatives to speak, on the basis that they were not going to be able to stay for the wake. It was a dreadful mistake; they went on and on and on, virtually canonizing the deceased. I couldn’t help leaning over and whispering to my assistant priest, ‘If you’re around at my funeral, just tell them that I’m a sinner saved by grace.’

At the moment these issues are very much matters of public discussion around Australia as a result of the widely publicized intention of the Roman Catholic Church to make Catholic funerals ‘more recognizably Christian,’ more reverent and more significant as acts of worship. In other words, placing things like football jerseys or photographs on coffins and playing secular pop music during funeral services are now to be discouraged. According to Linda Morris of the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘priests had complained to the Liturgical Commission of inappropriate behaviour, including the telling of blue jokes, of a beer bottle cracked open at the altar, of longwinded eulogies, and one that included a verbal attack on the church.’
New guidelines are likely to suggest that personal objects such as photos, fishing reels, jerseys and even knitting needles be placed on a memorial table near the coffin.

“We’re not saying there is no place for these items, that things should be bland and impersonal; what we are saying is that there should be a balance,” said Father Peter Williams, former Anglican priest who is now Executive Officer of the Roman Catholic Church’s National Liturgical Commission. “In one instance, somebody was giving a eulogy at a funeral and brought a stubby of beer up to the lectern, undid the top and started to drink it. To take those sorts of liberties when people are very raw and grief-stricken, I think, does extend the boundaries of propriety.”
As might be expected this provoked a round of outraged and amusing letters to the editor, including a remark from one man that funerals are supposed to be about the person who died, and that if he wanted to hear about the resurrection he would attend Sunday Mass! The following day, the paper printed this response, from another reader:

‘I hope that when I shuffle off this mortal coil my funeral service will be nothing about me, but rather about what Christ has accomplished and the hope of eternal life in Him. If you don’t want those left to ponder these mysteries and celebrate this, why would you want to have a funeral in a church? People can whinge and whine about my bad traits, and hopefully celebrate the (few) good ones, at a lunch afterwards’.
It’s nice to know that someone understands.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane