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Funerals that pay tribute to the foibles and frailties of the deceased make me deeply uneasy

A Requiem Mass I was at this morning was highly unusual in one respect: there was no panegyric of the dead

By on Monday, 11 October 2010

A Requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral (Photo: PA)

A Requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral (Photo: PA)

I was at a Requiem Mass this morning; nothing unusual in that, of course. Yet this Mass was highly unusual in this respect: there was no panegyric of the dead. The deceased man had made it clear to his widow before he died that he wanted the homily to focus on the faith – specifically the theology of death and resurrection, with accompanying prayers for the dead – and not on him.

This must be the first funeral I have attended since the death of my father more than 30 years ago when a “celebration of the life” has not been a central feature of the service. How and when did it creep in that a funeral has to concentrate on a deceased person’s achievements, foibles and lovable frailties – indeed, on his or her imminent canonisation – to the exclusion of almost everything else?

I suspect this practice has crept in alongside a weakened understanding and belief in life after death and a thin grasp of sin and its effects. And the more the hope in the life to come and the particular judgment has receded, the more the living cling to memories of their dead relative when they were alive – as though this world is all that there is. Even Catholic funerals have often succumbed to mawkish and sentimental gestures, making me feel deeply uneasy and theologically adrift.

As I write this the latest batch of CTS booklets has come through the door. I open one entitled Dying in Christ to find a little meditation by Mother Teresa at the back: “Death, in the final analysis, is only the easiest and quickest means to go back to God. If only we could make people understand that we come from God and that we have to go back to Him!”

There you have it: no mournful pop songs, no tributes to the deceased’s love of a pint at his local pub, his efforts on behalf of mankind; just natural grief at the loss and hope in the mercy of God. I left this morning’s funeral more comforted and consoled than at many a funeral I have attended in recent years.

I once read that in the days of the Hapsburg Empire there was a quaint yet beautiful ritual to receive the body of a dead emperor into the cathedral in Vienna: attendants with the coffin would knock on the doors once and a voice from within would ask: “Who demands entry?” Many grand titles would be read out. The doors would remain shut. The attendants would knock a second time and the same question would be asked. The response would be a recital of yet more worldly honours. The doors would still remain shut. Then the attendants would knock a third time; when the same question was asked the response this time would simply be “A poor sinner”. The doors would be thrown open and the coffin would proceed inside.

Perhaps this old custom could be modified and adapted for ordinary usage?

  • Dingus Uno

    An interesting piece. I would perhaps want to 'have my cake and eat it!' with a short profile or obituary on the life of the deceased, followed by Saint Teresa's quote, to put everything in context, so to speak!

    Dingus Uno

  • Tomas

    Thank you, thank you for these meditations, please pray for me to be able to pay off my loans and enter seminary.


  • Mack

    Thank you! Exactly right!

    I still find a pew by the door so I can escape when the fighting starts. I do the same at weddings.

  • Kathleen

    The praise of the deceased usually leads to neglect. Why pray for the soul who is already halo'd? But Masses are said for deceased popes! We all need a little help! Thinking of “A poor sinner” in need of our loving charity in the form of prayers is better.

  • The Flying Dutchman

    What you describe is the customary way of receiving the bodies of deceased members of the Austrian Imperial Family at their burial crypt under the Capuchin Church in Vienna.

  • Rosaryfixer

    Used to play for funerals. I remember on where a man gave the eulogy and focused on the fact that the deceased (A Catholic) played on all the important and famous golf courses in the world! Wow! I have left instructions that no one is to give a eulogy. There may be pictures and reminisces at a reception later. One very dear priest who is now an abbot, once told me, “When you die, people will say of you, 'She was good person,but..” That means I will get lots of Masses offered for my soul. My deacon husband has been nearly throttled a few times after he led a rosary, because he mentioned that the person may be in purgatory and we need to pray for his/her soul. People have shouted him down and said, 'How dare you imply that my uncle/aunt/cousin/mother/father, etc. is not in heaven?' By the way, every deacon in our diocese goes straight to heaven! I've heard it implied at all funerals I've attended, and never a mention of the need for prayers and Masses.

  • RJ

    Couldn't agree more. Our thoughts should be on mercy – including the need for it – and the hope of the Resurrection, and above all on God.

  • Mamasnookems

    I would never pray for the dead, we are to pray for the living! We can't pray anyone to heaven, they have to be “born again” (as Jesus said we should be or we won't see the kingdom of heaven) that is the only way, repent and believe that Jesus did the final sacrifice for our sins and is the Son of God.

  • RJ

    “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead”, as it says in the Book of Maccabees (2 Mac 12:46).

  • Mamasnookems

    That was added in by man and not by God. I really don't understand praying for the dead, their dead! And their soul is either in heaven or hell. When you have prayers for the living, they have a chance to repent and come to Jesus.

  • Mamasnookems

    Remember, God is a jealous God, why should we pray for the dead or the saints or even Mary, God wants us to pray to Him alone!

    Acts 14:15-16 ” Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them,who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways.”

  • ThirstforTruth

    Catholic funerals are celebrations of one death…the only one that really matters…the Sacrificial Death of Our
    Lord and Redeemer, Jesus Christ! It is offered for the repose of the soul of the deceased whose name is
    mentioned in this liturgy as being in need of the mercy of Jesus Christ. Also during this liturgy the names
    of the Mother of God as well as the other saints and martyrs are called upon to intercede at the hour of
    judgment for the deceased. Those participating in this liturgy also beg in the name of the Redeemer for
    mercy and clemency for the deceased. To focus on anything else during this most solemn liturgy is
    almost tantamount to blasphemy ….and does great dis-service to the deceased. In many of today’s funeral liturgies, in our rush to forget this bit of “un-pleasantness” of judgment for the sinner, we mis-place and mis-appropriate our praises
    and instead of offering them to God in the name of the deceased, we end up praising the deceased which
    does not fulfill our obligation to recognize He who Saves by His enormous Sacrifice! I am clipping this
    article ..and placing with my final instructions so that at the time of my death and judgment this should
    be remembered.