Vol. VI, No. 4: June
/ July 2000
Eulogies: do they belong
in Catholic funerals ?
by James Hitchcock
Eulogies, defined as speeches
praising a person who has died, should not be given at Catholic
funerals, according to Archbishop Seán Brady, president
of the Irish bishops’ conference. Official liturgical directives
do not allow them, except for brief personal remarks following
When I was growing up I attended
hundreds of funerals, as a server and a choir boy. All them were
in the same church, most of them conducted by the same priest,
who year after year preached the same sermon, which was to remind
the mourners that they too would die and should be prepared to
do so, and to urge them to pray for the soul of the deceased.
What more needed to be said?
Archbishop Brady thinks that
eulogies detract from the Mass itself and are often seen as the
real center of the liturgy. In the process the Christian meaning
of death is obscured.
The main problem with eulogies
is that they have to be unreservedly positive — no one wants
to hear anything critical about the deceased. Sometimes this
creates an unreal situation, as in the film, whose title I forget,
where three men attending the funeral of a friend reject everything
the rabbi says about the deceased, insisting that “that
ain’t Hymie”, finally discovering that indeed it is not
— they are at the wrong funeral!
This compulsory praise includes
a compulsory insistence that the deceased is already in heaven,
indeed has always been one of God’s favorite people, probably
now sitting in that privileged place that Jesus rebuked his apostles
The old funeral liturgy was somber,
with black vestments and mournful chant, the most shattering
of which was the ”
” (“day of wrath”),
reminding people that they would have to answer for themselves
on that day “when even the just will need intercession”.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the emphasis of the service
changed to hope, and white vestments, symbolic of the Resurrection,
are now always used.
But hope is not the same as presumption,
which is precisely what some funerals now are. Another joke tells
of the man who died at the same time as Mother Teresa of Calcutta
and found himself a few places behind her at the Pearly Gates.
He is complacent that he will be admitted until he hears Saint
Peter exclaim sternly, “But Teresa, you could have done
a lot more.”
Mother Teresa herself would have
insisted that she could have done a lot more. It is one of the
characteristics of saints that they are acutely aware of their
sins, of how completely they depend on God’s mercy, of how little
they “deserve” at God’s hands. But modern sensibilities
have subtly changed hope — that a merciful God will grant me
salvation — into arrogant certainty.
Once when I was “channel-surfing”
I saw a Catholic funeral on television and stopped to see who
it was. It turned out to be a figure from the sports world, a
man famous for his prodigious drinking and multiple marriages.
The eulogists seemed to be vying with one another in talking
about the deceased’s drinking capacity, which elicited loud guffaws
from the congregation, all this interspersed with sentimental
assurances that the deceased was now in heaven, the only logical
inference being that God rewards drunkenness.
This kind of abuse is built into
the nature of a eulogy. Even if the eulogist is aware of the
deceased’s perhaps considerable faults, he dare not hint that
the dearly departed is not in heaven. An unfortunate result is
that it forestalls people’s praying for the dead, which used
to be regarded as a solemn duty.
Several priests who spoke about
Archbishop Brady’s decree pointed out that criticism of it reveals
how some Catholics have ceased to understand the Mass, or the
Christian doctrine of salvation. The funeral is no longer a divine
mystery but is merely a ceremony to remember the deceased and
help the living cope with their loss. It ceases to have any supernatural
meaning, except in the purely sentimental insistence that the
deceased is in heaven.
Many Catholics no longer practice
their faith, and no longer believe in it. They are Catholics
only in a social sense. Funerals are one of the few times when
they attend church, and the eulogy now often caters to this secular
understanding of the faith, a ceremony in which people participate
out of a sense of tradition or family solidarity, with no significance
James Hitchcock, history professor
at St. Louis University and Catholic author, writes a bi-weekly
column for the Catholic press.