To Praise the Dead or To Pray for Them?

Let’s take a pause today in the OCF series. I’d like to call your attention to Andrew Hamilton’s opinion piece for Australia’s Jesuit periodical Eureka Street. A good essay on the contrasting approaches to modern funerals: do we come to honor the dead, or to entrust a sinner to God? Was the old approach the better one?

A generation or so ago, Catholic funerals emphasised very strongly the relationship of the dead with God and their salvation in heaven. People prayed that God would forgive their sins and receive them into everlasting life. … The virtues and the human foibles of the dead person may have been mentioned, but not emphasised.

People complain at times about an elaborate funeral celebration for a controversial figure, be it for a pro-choice Catholic (like Senator Ted Kennedy) or a criminal (like a priest child abuser). Does such a fuss imply critics and friends both have each conceded it is indeed a time to speak well of the deceased? To celebrate their life? Certainly, in the mainstream, mourners receive consolation from the positive memories of the one they’ve lost:

The celebrations focus more on remembering their life, thanking God for the quality of their lives, and consoling the living by recalling the dead person’s life. These are important and good things to do.

Eulogies seem have overtaken the rite of farewell and committal as central to the liturgy. And if we perceive funerals to be primarily for the praise of the person for his or her own sake, no wonder people object to funerals for some people. And here is a problem for bishops and clergy. Does the liturgical finery of a priest’s funeral (and let’s be honest: few other funerals draw more liturgical pomp) suggest more of the modern approach than a traditional one?

Hamilton’s suggestion, which seems sound to me:

Within the Christian community splendid ceremonies with processions of robed bishops and priests may heighten the sense that the dead person is precious in God’s eyes and may evoke God’s mercy. But those whom a dead priest has abused and the wider society are as likely to see in the celebration an enactment of power and defiance.

In such funerals it may be better to draw on the resources of Catholic liturgy that allow people to gather to seek forgiveness, express grief and pray for conversion. Plain dress, an unornamented church, honest prayers and periods of silence can express respect for the dead person and our shared need of God’s mercy. A one-style liturgy does not fit all circumstances.

No flowers, sure. But is there room for bishop and clergy to celebrate a funeral without vestments? Or absent themselves entirely from concelebration? I wonder how this approach would work out in practice. Suggestions?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to To Praise the Dead or To Pray for Them?

  1. Liam says:

    I don’t have a copy of the Ceremonial of Bishops, but the only ritual differences for a funeral of a priest that I am aware of are: (1) certain prayers are changed, (2) the body of the deceased is oriented toward the congregation, rather than the altar (the bodies of laity are oriented toward the altar; though in practice I seriously doubt this is something anyone thinks about), and (3) his insignia of office is placed on his casket.

    Otherwise, I see no reason why a severe simplicity could not obtain. The main celebrant would have to wear a chasuble, but it can be of the simplest type. If other priests attend to concelebrate – which is not required for the to so attend, of course – they can wear stole over albs.

  2. smf says:

    I don’t see why a funeral, combined with its other attached functions, can not serve all the various needs.

    I hope people do pray for me, and that this is a central part of my funeral (may that day be very long in coming). Let there be a wake or some such to celebrate my life.

    I can’t imagine a funeral being done without some degree of ceremony, vestments, etc.

    I guess the people we don’t like we can just throw their bodies in the river or local garbage dump, no need for any ceremony or prayers. Maybe we can even borrow from those early double predestination affirming groups who consigned those they felt damned to the fires of hell at burial. That could make for great TV, too.

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