Why does the church want to ban eulogies?
Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa has recently decreed a ban on eulogies during funeral rites conducted inside the church. Trying to explain this edict, the archbishop is reported to have said that the purpose of the funeral is “not to praise the deceased, but to pray for them.”
This seems like a strange way to repay the few who still go to the church for any reason, including the ritual goodbye for one who has died. My father who raised a large catholic family of nine children, all attending catholic schools to the end of high school, and who was at one time a “lay minister” in his parish, gave us strict guidelines for his funeral. “Anywhere except a Catholic church!” was his directive which we honored. It was a community event, and we played some of his favorite country and western music including “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone”. There was a formal eulogy delivered by one of his daughters and then others came forward to share remembrances with hearty laughter mixing with the tears. The event concluded with a typical funeral lunch with sandwiches, pastries and hot beverages while family and friends remained for almost two more hours. A number of members of the clergy, friends of the family, were also present. It was a happy “send off” void of the traditional dismal language of sin, purgatory and the economics of salvation.
I am troubled and saddened when I learn that the death of a friend or acquaintance would not be marked by some type of ceremony. The markings of our development as human beings almost begin when archeologists discover that those ancient ancestors began to develop ritual and ceremony around the experience of death. The funeral or memorial is not so much for the deceased but for those left behind. It is for us the survivors who need to adjust to life without that other person.
Sometimes at a grocery store some items need to be pulled, not because they have gone bad but because they have reached their “best before” date. It is too bad that the church has not learned to apply this wise practice to its top branch managers – the bishops. The economics of salvation coming from the old theology stressed the original sin of our mythological parents Adam and Eve and since then our “fallen nature”. We accepted the teachings that we were “wretches” who lived lost and blind and otherwise condemned without the saving grace of God. Some Protestant communities were a bit more generous as to the abundance of that saving grace but in the Catholic Church the grace of God was channeled only through the ordained ministers and the different packages that only these specially anointed men could offer. These redemptive goods included the sacraments, the liturgies and of course a myriad of indulgences that could relieve one of time spent in purgatory before going to heaven. There were practices such as First Friday and First Saturday observances which provided some guarantees of end of life good conduct passes. Even after death one could pay for endless masses to be said for the soul of a friend or oneself. Of course all of this was controlled by the ordained clergy for whom the system has really evolved. You create a need (such as mass for the dead) and you provide a rationale or belief system (for the salvation of their soul). This is guaranteed employment and income, along with prestige and power for those few who can provide this service. Anthropologists would probably suggest that this is really nothing new as it is what shamans and religious leaders in most traditions have been doing for thousands of years.
Think of yourself as a Catholic priest today for a few moments. Fewer and fewer of those who still call themselves catholic come around for regular service. There are still a few key moments in life when people think “religion”: birth, illness, marriage and death. Some people still get their children baptised even if they are not really involved in church life. Illness usually invites more the intervention of health counsellors or perhaps hospital chaplains. As for marriage, people really want the church more than they want the priest. (Even Wayne Gretzgy, a non-Catholic, was married in the Edmonton cathedral because it was the best place for such a super-star).
Everyone eventually dies. A funeral mass has become an essential source of parish revenue, as the funeral homes usually charge automatically for the numerous services provided by a church funeral including priest, choir master and choir, altar servers, floral arrangements, organist, and any other incidentals. For the clergy this is one of the few times when they get to display their professional merit, as celebrant of the mass and as a preacher. What the clergy do not need or want is competition. Of course eulogies can get messy when uncontrolled or delivered by the wrong person. However, when do you remember a good funeral sermon?
A few years ago a retired priest in Ottawa died suddenly of a heart attack while cycling. (http://www.canada.com/story.html?id=4987da0f-13aa-4284-b306-aa61bc11bab2) His funeral was remarkable in that far more attended than expected. This Oblate priest, Fr. John Hunt, had developed a funeral ministry outside of the physical church. He went to funeral homes when called upon and sat down with families to develop a history of the deceased person. He incorporated photos and music that connected to the recently departed or the family. He met the people where they were and helped them move through that stage of grieving with a ritual that included them and that resulted in a real memorial. He did not use the somber language of a theology that makes little sense to most people, including Catholics. Fr. John connected with people and they in turn remembered and came to say goodbye to the one who helped them in their need to say good bye.
The archbishop laments that people have lost a “sense of the importance of the funeral Mass”. Perhaps the people, including the catholic people, have simply moved on to something far more meaningful and helpful in this time of transition. There is a different theology that looks upon the blessings enjoyed in life and shared with others. Those are to be remembered when we celebrate the life of one who has journeyed with us. Will the archbishop understand this when he decides to sell off another church because so few are coming around for the old rites? The eulogy is only a sign of all what is missing in the old church. People will vote with their feet and make other choices that are psychologically and spiritually much healthier for them.