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The Last Word - July 2017

Words in Remembrance

When the revised Order of Christian Funerals went into effect in the United States in 1989, one of the new features was the following rubric after the communion prayer and before the final commendation: “A member or a friend of the family may speak in remembrance of the deceased before the final commendation begins.” Over the years, I have repeatedly heard priests complain about the way in which this provision is being carried out in practice in their parishes.

I was one of those people who thought that this new feature of the funeral rite was a wonderful idea. It would allow the family to be heard in a way that could be personally touching and maybe even therapeutic for them. It would relieve a little of the pressure on homilists who sometimes feel they must say something about the deceased, when in fact, they may not know the person. Let’s face it: many of the funerals we celebrate are for people we have never met. A funeral is terribly impersonal if no one says anything personal about the deceased. Now, of course, the homilist can meet with the family, and he can learn something about the deceased and then repeat it at the funeral. But that is quite artificial. So when the new practice was introduced, I thought this was a way to personalize a funeral in an authentic way. The friend or family member could say something appropriate in remembrance of the deceased. and the homilist could concentrate on breaking open the Scriptures. Of course the rub, we have since learned, is in getting people to say something appropriate.

This brings me to an article by Jeffrey Zaslow in The Wall Street Journal some time ago headlined “And ‘John Was a Terrible Gambler’: When Eulogists Get Carried Away.” Zaslow quotes one funeral director: ‘They talk too much. They bring up inappropriate things. They’re more into performance than remembrance.’ “And worst of all,” Zaslow writes, “They can’t be stopped.”

Every priest has probably had it happen to him. There have been horror stories. I hesitate to repeat the ones that have happened to me, because my parishioners might recognize themselves and be offended. Let’s just say that I have heard things like those cited by Zaslow: “In Southfield, Michigan, funeral director David Techner watched one eulogist speak at length about a deceased gambler’s favorite bookie. Another man gave a eulogy mentioning his late father’s daily habit of squeezing favorite parts of his wife’s anatomy.” Some don’t understand that this is a sacred moment: it’s a Mass for heaven’s sake! Some don’t realize that it is a time of delicate and sensitive emotions, not time for stand-up comedy, bad stand-up comedy at that. Others have a tendency to speak more about themselves than about the deceased.

That is not to say that I have not heard some very well done words of remembrance. These were sometimes stirring testimonies of faith and witnesses of love. But those have been the exception rather than the rule.

It is a very hard thing to tame. One bishop tried simply to ban them outright. I don’t think that is the solution. I think the solution is some guidelines. One rule would be keeping it brief. Many people have no idea how long they are speaking because they are unaccustomed to public speaking. If the best homilies are brief, the best eulogies will be, too. Five minutes is plenty, always less than ten. I would suggest that if the family insists on more, it be at the reception afterwards or perhaps at the wake, the day before. It should always be written out. Eulogists should not get into controversial material. And only one speaker at a funeral.

Ideally, eulogies should be testimonies of Christian faith and speak of true values in a way that might actually inspire us.

- Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal