Funeral Wishes

Anybody remember the early 90’s film The Doctor? William Hurt plays a brash, conceited surgeon, something of a precursor to Greg House. Hurt’s character finds himself diagnosed with cancer. I remember the movie for the use of music by two surgeons to either entertain themselves during their operations or to calm their unconscious patients. Hurt has raucous rock music piped in to the surgery room. A colleague, largely shunned because of his reputation for being concerned for his patients, plays soothing classical music, as much for his patients as for himself.

When Hurt’s character needs a surgeon to remove throat tumors, he goes to his shunned colleague. Knowing the ill doctor would appreciate it, the operation takes place accompanied by a rock soundtrack, not the usual classical fare.

That part of the movie came to mind immediately when I read Tom Kolar’s comment on the last Msgr Marini post:

I faithfully support the church financially, but no longer attend Mass because of the contemporary Catholic Music. I have it in my Last Will And Testament that there is to be no music at my Funeral Mass. From my conversations with my family over the years about the state of church music on Sundays – I should say they will be happy with my funeral.

When we get to our in-depth examination of the Catholic funeral rites, we will find that music is an assumption for a funeral Mass, not an option. That’s if you go by the red-n-black, of course. The Church stops short of mandating music for every particular funeral, but it does make clear that music is part of the rite.

That said, I can think of few priests and no professional colleagues of  mine who would deny reasonable choices for a funeral Mass. The practice in this country is generally that the family dictates the liturgy planning, unless the deceased has made prior arrangements with the parish staff.

I lament that a person doesn’t go to Mass because of the music–there are plenty of choices to avoid contemporary music: daily Masses, the early Sunday Mass in many large parishes, and parishes that devote themselves to traditional music. Is being in communion with the Church worth a relocation from a rural or otherwise isolated location? I would think so.

That said, I can speak for the resources I have at hand for my parish. We would always use the 1989 Order of Christian Funerals (OCF), but being able to assemble a schola or a cantor/psalmist and accompanist for a funeral with traditional music would not be outside of my abilities and resources.

Is this a matter of catering to the personal taste of mourners and of the deceased? I would hope not. But this is where I would see a vast improvement in the liturgical and pastoral tenor of the Church since the last council. Prior to Vatican II, there would have been little or no discussion on this. Funeral musicians had a set repertoire, usually very limited. And they played funerals regardless of their own skills: excellence, good, decent, or marginal. There was no dialogue on the Scriptures, nor on the content of the homily. The Vigil likely didn’t include storytelling or other aspects of the grief process. Perhaps we’ve traded away the Dies Irae, probably poorly done in places that even bothered with singing it, for the ability to minister to particular pastoral needs. While the reputation of pre-conciliar music is now pretty high in hindsight, I’d say that the experience of Requiem Masses before 1970, on the whole, was a liturgical and spiritual impoverishment compared to the modern rite.

And alas, I should also point out that just because a deceased person has designated certain instructions to be carried out at the time of death, doesn’t mean the family will actually do it. I’ve known persons whose wish for a Catholic funeral has been abrogated by family. In one case, the children chose a different church for the funeral, against the expressed wishes of an elderly lady known by the parish staff, the social worker, and the care facility. Are you going to court over it? Not likely.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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15 Responses to Funeral Wishes

  1. Liam says:

    Well, since wills only directly control the assets of an estate and indirectly its beneficiaries (and even then only up to a point and only after probated, which doesn’t happen before funeral typically occur….), they have zero control over choices of parish staff. About the most control one might hope to exert is if one makes a parish a beneficiary of one’s estate and is made known in advance of the contingency of a bequest to it on certain funeral choices, et cet. Some parishes might refuse conditional bequests on principle.

  2. tom Kolar says:

    Hi Liam,
    I hope I am covered – my family knows what I want, One my best friends is the CEO of a Bar Register of Preeminent Lexis Law Firm and he and the chief litigator and head of Estate Planning are my executors and will be making the funeral arrangements for me and not my family. I have no worries about my sisters following my wishes or the pastor doing so at the present time. If there is a problem – hey it won’t be mine anymore.

    • Liam says:

      Well, good luck with that; your will won’t in and of itself control anything about the choices of your parish’s staff at the time of your funeral.

  3. tom Kolar says:

    I have nothing against the majority of contemporary Church Music – just the way it is performed. It should be performed in the proper singable key with a good organist who knows his feet were made for the foot pedals – or a good pianist – or a good guitarist whatever – but in a singable key where the high notes are reachable buy the untrained voice. There is something to be said for the organist who can change keys and improvise.
    As you did mention, I could go to daily Mass, but unfortunately they try to sing during this, while all my friends are rolling their eyes and wincing at each other. I guess my Faith is worn down by many decades of Post Second Vatican Council attempts at being relevant; while more of us are ushered out the door.
    When I can get I ride, I go into the city to a church where the music is uplifting; where the music doesn’t upset my ear.

    In our diocese all the money goes for grade schools and high schools, and I know with budget constraints there is no money for good musicians. Since I am almost 70, deafness is hereditary in my family – maybe I can deal with my problem when this occurs.

  4. Brian says:

    Always been a fan of William Hurt.

    • tom Kolar says:

      So have I been a fan; and I have been taking my sister for chemo for breast cancer every week, and I told her I was going to rent it for her when it was all over – fortunately – her care is superb.

  5. Gavin says:

    As a musician, particularly one who insists upon the music of the Church such as chant and polyphony and the use of the organ (except I do play “too high”. Sorry, but you should be able to produce a D without trouble), I don’t know whether to be angered at his rejection of music or at those who caused him to associate bad music with church. It reminds me that our work carries with it real consequences and the necessity of pastoral accommodation (to those on BOTH sides of the liturgical divide!)

    As for Tom himself, I can only say: don’t be a thorn in your church musicians’ sides. If you want something, be lavish in your praise when the music is uplifting. Not just to the musicians but to the priest as well. If you have never said “thank you” to a musician, you have no right to complain. And don’t buy into the lie that churches can’t “afford” good musicians. It’s a matter of if they choose to or not.

    • tom Kolar says:

      Hi Gavin,
      First “Google: Doctor Alexander McCurdy”. When I was a college kid and he was looking at something he hadn’t looked at for a few years, I used to turn pages for him at the organ – and I would sing the Catholic Chants for him when his Church was empty – he especially loved the EXULTET. I used to sing for him at the Princeton Chapel – he taught at the Westminster Choir School. I certainly – at that time, at least could not sing in his church publicly, since it was the First founded Presbyterian Church in America.
      I was not speaking of organists like you who are trained, and do not wish to be a “thorn” in the church’s side. I am a trained musician. I do complement a good well prepared organist. I just went to the loft to congratulate an organist who played One of Widor’s Toccatas after Mass.
      Most of my organist friends who came from Curtis or Juliard could not afford to play at a Catholic Church. Our Parish church has a so-so Alan and six Masses – and at $300.00 a Mass that is something the Cheap Catholics would raise not tolerate on the end of the year expense sheet in the mail.
      My best friend plays one Service at an Episcopal Church on Sunday and gets $200 – so I do guess $300.00 is too high.

  6. Tony says:

    I have started writing down my funeral wishes for my wife to carry out should I die first. Some of the wishes won’t be possible.

    1. Latin Requiem Mass.

    2. Black vestments.

    3. No Eulogy. Save it for the viewing the night before.

    4. Chant propers.

    5. No statement that I’m in heaven, because unless I’m lucky enough to be martyred for the faith, I won’t be. Strong discussion about purgatory in the homily and repeated entreaties to pray for the deceased.

    That’s the start. ;)

    • Liam says:

      Well, the no-eulogy thing is probably the easiest thing to control: frankly, I also think it’s a wonderful gift to have an instruction that makes no one feel guilty about having to speak personally in what is not the ideal setting (the wake or collation is a much better setting for remembrances) – I’ve seen too many people go through too much feeling they had to do a eulogy at a funeral.

    • Gavin says:

      My understanding is that any request for an EF Requiem must be honored, unless you mean Latin OF, in which case that’s at the whim of the pastor. Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

      • Liam says:

        If the parish priest staff is not prepared to offer the EF, and the family doesn’t have a priest ready to do so, a parish is not obliged to offer the EF.

  7. tom Kolar says:

    Your #5 is the most important to me. I am afraid that my friends will not pray for me or have a Mass offered once in a while for me – because I am hopeful of making it to the greatest and happiest state after heaven, Purgatory. People Pooh pooh this today – I don’t care – don’t pooh pooh it for me. I am not a Saint, and need the prayers of the church. I am not a Protestant who is totally corrupt by original sin; I am a Catholic who corrupted myself by actual sin, and need Christ’s Grace and the prayer of my brothers and sisters to purify me from my sins – That I committed.

  8. Jon says:

    There are a number of websites available which allow you to record how you wish to be remembered. As the article suggests ‘just because a deceased person has designated certain instructions to be carried out at the time of death, doesn’t mean the family will actually do it’.

    I use an Australian operated service (, and have recorded everything I would request. I do that not so much so my family follow through with it, but to help them out in what (i hope!) will be a very traumatic time for them (e.g. suggesting what songs to play in memory of me – selected by me, what clothes to dress me in, who to remember to invite etc). There are numerous other websites popping up each day that provide similar services – it is definitely something that needs more awareness. JD

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