Holding the line

Charles 21 Comments

There’s nothing new in a minister-naffs-off-mourners story, nor yet a Catholic-priest-bans-eulogy story. Some minsters are insensitive to the needs of their congregations, some insist on theological orthodoxy, some use a funeral as a conversion opportunity, some like to remind non-churchgoers that they will burn for all eternity in the fires of hell. Some clergy do exactly what their congregations want them to do, let’s not forget, but today’s story is not about them.

Today’s story is about Father Mike, a catholic priest in America who, at the funeral of a 29 year-old, was reckoned to have conducted himself in an insensitive, impersonal way which denied the congregation the comfort and assurance they sought. Below is an email one of the mourners sent to him:


Below is the reply from the priest:



Father Mike, like a lot of Catholic priests, believes that a funeral is no place for a eulogy. The do afterwards is the appropriate occasion for personal tributes, reminiscences and other life-celebratory stuff. A Catholic funeral has an altogether different job to do.

Father Mike’s heartless-seeming treatment of those grieving people is theologically defensible. Who are we to take issue with him for defending the integrity of the Catholic funeral mass and objecting to it being muddled by the intrusion of an anomalous element like a eulogy? Any faith group which is settled, fixed and confident in its beliefs prohibits the intrusion of anomaly. Atheists (Humanists) ban religious elements from their funerals, a practice reckoned heartless by some. In the words of one humanist celebrant, “Reverting to old comforting superstitions at a time of bereavement is understandable and will no doubt persist for a generation or two … I feel that celebrants, whether Humanist or religious should personally subscribe to the ethos and philosophy that underlies the nature of the ceremony.”

Whether or not Father Mike would subscribe to what this same celebrant goes on to say, we can only wonder: “I’ve met independent celebrants who’ve told me they can be whatever the client wants them to be but that strikes me as being the job description of an ancient but entirely different profession altogether.” (Source)

The question never debated by secular, semi-religious, call-them-what-you-will celebrants is whether a eulogy does actually belong in a funeral. If a wedding is analogous, we note that the speeches are made at the wedding breakfast, not the marriage ceremony — the happy chatter is kept separate from the solemnisation.


  1. Charles

    I’d suggest that a wedding is not really analogous: marriage is (among other things) a legal contract. The solemn part is therefore the signing of the document; there is optionally — if the parties are so inclined — the calling for divine witness in a particular location.

    What seems to have been the problem in the case above is a breakdown in communication or negotiation. Why was it not fully clear to either party (priest and mourners) that situating a eulogy was on the cards?

    The eulogists may not have been neglecting God in their speaking, having delegated those observances to the priest and — in a church — consciously speaking under that umbrella. Who knows? Not us.

  2. Charles

    I agree with Kathryn! Any funeral plans should have been thrashed out beforehand with clear explanations about God-centred liturgy and the time, place and length for a welcome eulogy. If the disagreement was acted out in full public during the funeral itself something was amiss.

  3. Charles

    Take the eulogy out of a non religious service and you have a fat load of nothing. Bit of music and a poem, thus it degenerates further below the much maligned “20 minutes down the crem” as you can’t even manage the 20 minutes!

      1. Charles

        Indeed, and sometimes that is more significant without the fat load of nothing words. I attended a Poppy’s funeral where there was 1 minute of words and 15 minutes of gentle music for the incredibly close 4 mourners…. and one body.

        1. Charles

          I love these words by an Australian journo, Dick Gross:

          We atheists can talk the leg off a chair but we can’t sing or chant or dance the leg off an amputee.

          You can easily cock up even the most moving event by speeches. During my days of municipal service, these citizenship ceremonies meandered between inspirational and pedestrian. The pedestrian bits were inevitably the speeches. The best bits were non-verbal – the Mayoral handshake, the familial hugging, the singing of the national anthem, the presentation of the symbolic wattle and the giving of the certificate. All of these had no words, merely music or actions.

          Religions don’t have a monopoly on rites of passage but they do them better than us. The secular world needs to learn more about celebrating without speeches. We need to have rituals we perform together and not passively watch.

          At the heart of great ceremony is performance that is not normal. Normal is pedestrian. Words are dull. We need transforming ceremony and that requires anything but speeches.

  4. Charles

    So the campaign against eulogies in non-church ceremonies continues. I’m torn. Of course ritual actions are capable of reaching down at a level of meaning below (or above) words. And sometimes people (we) do go on too much about someone’s life, instead of finding actions that speak louder than words. But: “words are dull”? Where does this odd anti-verbal prejudice amongst literate, fluent people come from? Is it a kind of self-disgust with what we’ve got?

    Actually, Charles, there’s been plenty of debate right here about whether or not secular ceremonies “should” contain eulogies.

    Final point before I switch off the words: here we are once again deciding what is the “best” thing for funeral ceremonies. I’ve always thought it’s the family that decides what we “should” do.

    In Rupert Callender’s phrase, we can try to help them find what they need, not just what they want. But maybe, quite often, they want to hear about a life. I’m seeing a lady later today who told me she wants plenty about his life in the ceremony, because he had an interesting life. I helped with a funeral recently in which we had probably four facts about his life, no more, but plenty of anecdotes and statements about the sort of man he was. And we had birdsong.

    1. Charles

      Agreed Gloria. In addition I often find myself “prettyfying” peoples characters when in reality they have been indifferent, uncaring or just plain unpleasant. Only words will allow us to create this illusion for the bereaved. I once said “those that know, know, and those that don’t, don’t need to”, so what’s wrong with giving those that know a bit of a white lie on a day when the absolute truth may be too much to bear?

  5. Charles

    We had my Uncle speak about my Grandad in the Church service before going to the crematorium for a private family committal.
    He had a bloody amazing life so why not share…it is what Grandma wanted and the Vicar was happy to go along with what ever she wanted.
    But isn’t that how it should be? Shouldn’t it be up to the person taking the service as to what their limit are and if their limits aren’t what the family want, then it should be up to the funeral director to find someone who will agree to the families wishes?

    1. Charles

      Exactly Lucy. How much longer are we going to have the pushing and prodding of people to abandon rituals that bring them comfort? Many people are not brave enough to try something different, and they are having enough trouble being brave for the day never mind doing something “off the wall”. When these individuals come along how refreshing it is for us purveyors of ceremonies! I recently found an artist brave enough to let me write his mother’ eulogy in the first person and deliver it ala Alan Bennet monologue. fabulous for us all, yet many don’t want this.
      Think about it. Why do we have comfort food, that all familiar thing we eat in times of crisis or stress? Same with funerals and their structures. I refuse to take my clients too far out of their comfort zone to be trendy, alternative or even evolutionary. Evolution will occur, yet it may be over a long term, much as human evolution, and what w have to do is take our victories where we find them, and for the rest give them exactly what they want.

      1. Charles

        Each of the funeral’s I have arranged have all been completely different, so why would I use the same vicar/humanist/civil celebrant for each?

        About 10 years ago when I was first starting out, anyone other than a vicar to take the funeral service was as rare as hens teeth. Now though, I have only used a vicar once since opening my own company.

        There is a general shift away from using vicars and I think this is down to the generation we are currently holding funerals for. There is no doubt that when Grandma dies, she will have a church service even though she is not religious. It is just “what they do” and what they expect.

        Also, the way I work here is that I don’t have one or two celebrants “on my books.” So far I have four. Rather than using the same person for each family, I get to know the family during the course of making funeral arrangements with them and I have a pretty good idea of the best person to lead them through the funeral on the day.

        This is the same for the local vicars if someone requests one. I know the vicars and know which one’s will suit which family.

        I do stress to the people making arrangements, that if for what ever reason they don’t like the person that goes to meet them that they should let me know and I will find someone else.

        Surely this also comes down to knowing who you are working with too? I know which of my civil celebrants will read a prayer out. I know which one wouldn’t dream of doing that. I know which vicar would be happy to let the family read a poem and which one won’t.

        If you are a regular parishioner of a Church then you should know that your vicar won’t read a eulogy at the funeral. In which case, why ask? If that is the most important part of the funeral for you, then don’t have your usual vicar.

        I think the funeral director should get to know the vicar/humanist/celebrant they are sending to someone….otherwise how do we know they are the right person to lead the funeral for that family?

          1. Charles

            I’m not sure that’s quite how Lucy meant it, Charles. We choose neither coffins nor celebrants for our clients but if someone comes in certain that they want a completely non-religious funeral we don’t waste their time talking about the local vicars. Likewise if someone wants a Natural Burial we don’t bother discussing coffins that don’t meet the criteria. That’s all.

      2. Charles

        I can’t see that anyone is advocating any such abandonment, Lol, nor exhibiting any such insensitivity to what bereaved people want, Tim. In any case, this blog is a debating club, not a campaign, and it’s therefore permissible for the chat to drift into the theoretical. So, in the interests of debate, let me with all the objectivity and detachment in the world, mischievously lob the cat in among the pigeons and ask for what purpose, then, all the ceremonial palaver?

        Actually, I can see both sides of this clearly enough to induce paralysis (in myself). I can see clearly why people want their funerals to be like this. But in certain melancholic moods (I’m prone to them at this time of the year) it does seem decidedly odd that people should find value in paying a person to repeat back to them the life story of someone that person never knew.

        1. Charles

          ‘it does seem decidedly odd that people should find value in paying a person to repeat back to them the life story of someone that person never knew.’
          Charles: that’s cos we so good at telling it the way they want to hear it! And we’ll weave thoughts and memories from lots of different people, friends and family. Almost every time I meet family and friends to talk about the dead person’s life, someone says, ‘I didn’t know that.’
          What’s even odder is that, on the day, the people who laugh most at the stories and observations are the same people who told me those stories!

          1. Charles

            I was being unduly mordant, A Celeb. My remark exhibited all the cleverness of a bolshy 15 year-old. I often think it’s like portrait painting. There’s the likeness and, behind that, everything that animated the subject. It’s a marvellous skill (the result a lot richer than a photosnap)

        2. Charles

          You know Charles I had a thought the other day, rarity I know, and it has occurred to me before. There’s old Charles, crafty old devil, sat by the side of the pond that is the GFG blog dropping all kinds of tasty bait and waiting to see who will bite.

  6. Charles

    “I’ve met independent celebrants who’ve told me they can be whatever the client wants them to be but that strikes me as being the job description of an ancient but entirely different profession altogether.”

    Grow up, Humanist, and drop the rhetoric. Aren’t you yet as bored as us all of that tired old line that says anyone who isn’t like you is a whore?

    If you want a religious funeral you ask for a religious minister. If you don’t – well, nobody wants a Hoover, they just want a vacuum cleaner that may or may not be a Hoover, and in all my years as a Humanist celebrant nobody ever, ever wanted a Humanist funeral (not even the solitary humanist, who asked for No Humanism). People just want something or other that’s conducted by anyone at all who isn’t a vicar, who may or not be a Humanist. They may or may not have an idea of what they want included, which doesn’t mean they want your belief system. With rare exceptions, we the job simply because we’re on the funeral director’s list, that’s all.

    The BHA put in writing that it financially supported the Humanist funeral celebrant network specifically for the purpose of promoting its humanist message. Those of us who left the organisation on that account have a moral ground at least as high as those who sneer at us from behind their copy of Funerals Without God.

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