Earlier this year my cousin and his son died in a tragic farm accident. The resulting funerals were a glorious and heart-breaking mix of Amazing Grace, riderless horses, the local football club and funny but somehow inappropriate eulogies tucked in between Psalm 23 and a reflective piece from a writer whose name quite escapes me. It was memorable and it suited the personalities of the two men we were grieving, but it would never have got past first base in my Catholic parish. Funerals and the form the Catholic Church assumes they will take can be a bit of a problem.
As a pastoral associate I thought every parish needed funeral ministers, women and men, not just priests, who would help families to prepare a funeral liturgy that would respect the religious beliefs, background and needs of the vulnerable and grieving family. A requiem mass is not always the most appropriate response but when it is suggested they agree because usually there is no other option on the table.
Recently I attended the funeral of my late father’s best friend, Frank. Frank’s story and my father’s intersected in the early nineties when they were both senior citizens from Melbourne spending their children’s inheritance on overseas travel. They met at a summer school at Trinity College Dublin ostensibly studying Irish literature.
Over the next fifteen years they talked and travelled their way around bits and pieces of the world. Every week or so they sorted out the problems besetting the government, any government come to that, over sandwiches – Frank’s contribution, and oozy vanilla slices – definitely my father’s choice, accompanied by a large pot of tea They shared personal concerns that would never have otherwise found healing words and clucked in disapproval over the spendthrift ways of the younger generation. By that my dad usually meant me!
During these years Frank gradually returned to the Catholic practices that he had left back when he was much younger. A meticulous man, he left instructions that when he died his funeral was to be in the Catholic tradition but there was to be no requiem mass. His family was like most families today – some cradle Catholics, some nothing, some practicing, most not. So we gathered in the chapel of the funeral parlour for a liturgy of the Word led by a priest. No, there was no footy theme song played at this funeral and even though like most of us, he did it his way, Frank Sinatra wasn’t there to tell us so. His son and daughter spoke about his life with its ups and downs and the whole liturgy, if that’s what it was, had a celebratory sort of feel about it. The words and music were sober but they spoke of the man and who he had been to his family and friends.
Each person who is born lives and dies wrapped around in the stories and experiences that hold their God-given uniqueness. When a loved one dies the grieving family and friends look for meaningful ways to express that. A funeral gives them an opportunity to dip into the mystery of God and the mystery that is the person. I think we need to be careful in the ways we limit how that happens. Diocesan guidelines use language with deep theological implications and practical, if restricting, directions on just how to do this. Unfortunately most of us don’t know what they are talking about.
We might have a wonderfully rich religious culture but by and large we have lost the key to it. The religious symbols and language meant to help us express the grief, hope, expectations and the love that surface when death edges into life have lost their meaning in a welter of other images and responses. Hence the need we feel to lace the requiem mass with words and music that do express, however crudely, what we struggle to find words for.
The friendship between my father and Frank in its openness and love put skin on the relationship that God had with both of them. Nobody thought to mention that at Frank’s funeral liturgy. But maybe it was there. The final song was Danny Boy.
Judith Lynch is a writer who lives in Melbourne.
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