Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 30, 2000
Funeral - good TV but bad liturgy
Homily should be eucharistic, pall should be reminder of Baptism
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
Watching Pierre Elliott Trudeau's funeral on television brought tears to my eyes, especially as I watched and listened to Justin Trudeau's eulogy to his father: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep. He has kept his promises and earned his sleep. Je t'aime, Papa!"
This was rivetting and heart-wrenching drama: "Je t'aime, Papa!"
It was good television. Some would even say good politics. Nevertheless, it was also bad liturgy.
The funeral liturgy is an act of praise and thanksgiving for Christ's victory over sin and death, a proclamation of the paschal mystery. This act of worship belongs to the whole community, to the whole Church, and not to any individual or group. Any elements that do not give expression to this act of worship do not have a place.
In the funeral Mass, the person who has died is named at the very beginning of the rite when the body is being received at the entrance to the church. We sprinkle holy water on the coffin and place a pall, reminiscent of the white garment used at Baptism, over the coffin. In this instance the Canadian flag was draped over the coffin as a symbol of the prime minister's service to his country.
However, the Baptism of a person is still the most basic identity, and symbols reminding the community of the person's Baptism should not be displaced by other symbols.
The flag could have draped the coffin during the transportation to and from the church, but it should have been removed and folded with appropriate ceremony and respect just before the pall is to be placed on the coffin during the welcoming of the body.
The paschal candle is given high prominence, ideally in the procession where the coffin and mourners are received and welcomed into the midst of the assembly. In point of fact, the introductory rites are to recapitulate what transpired at the Baptism of the deceased.
In every celebration for the dead, the Church attaches great importance to the reading of the Word of God. The biblical texts proclaim the story of God's love and fidelity, reminding us of God's design for the world in which suffering and death will relinquish their hold on all whom God has called his own.
A careful selection and use of readings from Scripture will provide the family and the community with an opportunity to hear God speak to them in their needs, sorrows, fears and hopes.
The homily should have a narrative style. At a funeral, there is storytelling to be done - a real person's story - not on its own, but in relation to God. The norm is clearly spelled out in the introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals.
"A brief homily based on the readings is always given after the Gospel reading at the funeral liturgy and may also be given after the readings of the vigil service; but there is never a eulogy.
"Attentive to the grief of those present, the homilist should also help the members of the assembly to understand the mystery of God's love and the mystery of Jesus' victorious death and resurrection were present in the life and death of the deceased and that these mysteries are active in their lives as well.
"Through the homily, members of the family and community should receive consolation and strength to face the death of one of their members with a hope nourished by the saving word of God" (n. 27).
A eulogy is a certain kind of rhetoric or public speaking, focused on the deceased person, with the intention of praising him or her. In this set oration there may be an implication that the praise is exaggerated or even untrue.
A homily, on the other hand, is to be a discourse within the context of a worship service which invites the assembly to consider and interpret its life and experience in light of a biblical text or texts which have been proclaimed.
What is at issue in the question of preaching at a funeral is clearly not that any mention of the person who has died or of the person's attributes and accomplishments be avoided by the homilist. Rather, it is that such references be consistent with the spirit of the liturgy and find a proper context in the homily.
At the funeral of a Christian, the homily should be genuinely Eucharistic, a statement of praise and thanks to God. It should invite the person's family and friends to simultaneously hold on to the values and lessons of this person's life, entrust the person's final destiny into the hands of God, and remember the shortness and fragility of human life and of God's invitation in Christ to live every moment fully and abundantly.
Father Jean-Guy Dubuc's homily touched on all these items.
However, Justin's wonderful tribute to his father and the other two eulogies should have been given in another context. The Order of Christian Funerals suggests the vigil of the deceased. "After the prayer of intercession and before the blessing or at some other suitable time during the vigil, a member of the family or a friend of the deceased may speak in remembrance of the deceased."
Another possibility would be at the gravesite or the funeral reception after the interment.
These alternatives also preclude funerals from becoming media and/or political events - not necessarily a bad thing!
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