“How’d I do, Father?” The young man, who looked like an aspiring Thor actor, expected praise for his remarks at his father’s funeral. He had eloquently explained how life is so fragile and ephemeral. As we walked together into the luncheon, I answered cautiously, “You’re clearly a bright guy. Your remarks felt kind of . . . Buddhist.”
His face brightened noticeably, “Oh, were you able to pick that up? I consider myself a Buddhist.”
I’m a “John Paul II priest,” generationally inclined to imagine I’ll save the world by my thoughtful and articulate orthodoxy. Though my twenty years as a parish priest have tempered my fantasy, I still wince when the rites of the Church are hijacked to preach an alternative Gospel, or even an alternative god.
We’ve all heard the apotheosis-eulogies: “Grandma is now looking down on us from Heaven, bestowing favors on her beloved great-grandchildren.” Also common are the animists: “Granddad is not really gone. He will be with us in the gentle rain, the rustling breezes, and our golf games.”
Occasionally I’ve encountered a would-be Father Luther: “Dad was a good Christian, despite calling himself Catholic. We are saved by faith alone, not by works!” More disturbing are the self-vindicating eulogies, “It was Mom’s good example that made her children the virtuous heroes we are today.”
What’s going on here? What kind of spirit takes a family funeral as the platform for such fantasy, self-assertion, or self-indulgence? Is it the classic narcissism of the Baby Boomers, come to maturity in the vacuity of the Millennials? Is it liberalism causing a hundred flowers to bloom?
Ineffective catechesis contributed, but not as I at first imagined. The Silent Generation perhaps only marginally exceeded the subsequent Baby Boomers in their personal faith, but their ritual expectations and behavior were more effectively constrained by the social mores of their generation. In their grief, the bereaved strain for meaning and hope, and in the absence of sterner ecclesial boundaries, they reach in many different directions. Thus the funeral Mass, which includes the Sacrament of the Eucharist — creation’s thanksgiving for health and life in Jesus Christ — is reduced to “a celebration of the life of Aunt Betty.”
Similarly with the Catholic Church’s post-conciliar liberalism: A high-ranking priest of my diocese once told the priests, “Obviously, the funeral Mass does nothing for the deceased. It’s for the family, and we’ve got to minister to them according to their needs.” But some of us still think the funeral Mass benefits the dead. When even the pastoral authorities dispute the meaning of the funeral, it’s only natural for the faithful to impute to it whatever meaning most pleases them, however self-indulgent it may seem.
My remedy has been to take a more pre-emptive role: Once the bereaved have set their minds on a eulogy and imagined themselves turning the funeral toward one or another meaning, it’s hard for me to redirect them without starting a fight I can’t win.
Instead, with the consent of the funeral director, I’ll show up very early at any scheduled visitation. If possible, I’ll be there when the family is newly with the body or remains of the deceased. After they pay their first respects, I offer to say the Vigil Prayers in order to set the tone for the time they spend at the funeral home. I abbreviate the rite and use the spare minutes to focus the family on their memories. I invite them, then and there, to comment on or tell illustrative anecdotes of the deceased.
The effect is consistently positive. The family attends to the deceased, while not excluding those who need attention on themselves. They’ve experienced satisfaction in their proper roles as mourners, praying for and remembering the deceased. They feel less need to impute alternative meanings to the rites or to assert themselves in other ways.
Often, our informal sharing of memories obviates the eulogy. Even when the family’s expectation of a eulogy has already been firmly fixed by earlier experiences, I can point to our shared memorializing as the standard for any eulogy: “Stay away from the topic of religion, or lessons learned, and simply tell a story that you believe illustrates what you’d like other to know about the deceased.”
Some pastors simply forbid eulogies, a stumbling block for families who by the experience of early decades have come to expect them. Other pastors indulge eulogies: They adopt a superficially pastoral stance, but likely at the expense of the Gospel for a generation to come, as the “celebration of the life of Aunt Betty” degenerates into a celebration of the false gospel of the self. I like to imagine that by modeling a prayerful remembrance of the deceased, I am herding my flock into the fold of a healthy funeral Mass.
Fr. David Poecking is the pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania.