Holding the line

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.

The stalemate of funeral choice

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Cherishing freedom of speech we often quote the line, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. So democrats proselytise in order to influence others, and sometimes those influenced leave one tribe and join another. A far cry from relativism, the message is, choice is good, but don’t choose them when you can choose us.

Funeralworld is no exception, and no more so than in matters of faith. To illustrate the point, let’s fisk the views of an Anglican priest who embraces the clarity of set liturgy over the burden of unfettered individualism. Fisking in red.

Father Edward Tomlinson writes:

‘In the last few years it has become painfully obvious that many families I have conducted funerals for have absolutely no desire for any Christian content whatsoever’.

Yes, it’s clear many folk book the funeral services of C of E priests without any real enthusiasm for religious significance.

‘I have stood at the crem like a lemon, wondering why on earth I am present at the funeral of somebody led in by the tunes of Tina Turner, summed up in pithy platitudes of sentimental and secular poets and sent into the furnace with ‘I Did It My Way’ blaring out across the speakers. To be brutally honest I can think of 100 better ways of spending my time as a priest on God’s earth’.

If you were saying noone should ever choose Sinatra, I’d call you a snob and busybody. As you’re saying, ‘why Sinatra and me, a priest?’, I sympathise. So what are you going to do about it? You could perhaps create a sensitive compromise that gently allows God’s presence to resonate: for example, people who haven’t been to a service in years might value their choice of, say, the Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love being linked to the words from 1 Timothy that ‘we bring nothing into this world and we take nothing out.’ Granted, you might be scratching your head to find such a link with some secular songs. ‘My Way’? If this smacks of fudge, your other option is to decline bookings unless they request pure liturgy.

‘Today the norm is to place the liturgy in the hands of a humanist provider or ancient crumbling cleric who will do as told, in short those who will not trouble undertakers with unavailability’.

The norm is not to place the liturgy in secular hands, although civil celebrants are indeed increasingly chosen for non-liturgical services. However, you’re right that undertakers have retired priests on speed dial due to their availability. But you did say working priests were quite busy enough doing priestly things without sitting through Tina Turner at the crem. Also, it’s uncharitable to refer to old people as ‘crumblies’. ‘Wrinklies’ is more acceptable.

‘I am troubled that pastoral care is being left in the hands of those whose main aim is to make money. And I am further concerned that an opportunity for evangelism is slipping through our fingers’.

It’s wrong to assume civil celebrants and retired priests are just in it for the money. Secondly, while it’s our duty to bear witness, evangelising of a finger-wagging nature is likely to score an own goal at a funeral where mourners have not specifically requested Christian liturgy. I return to the two C of E options: decline the booking or accept it, limiting evangelism to taking the secular elements and gently and resourcefully relating them to God’s universal truths.

‘It is my passionate belief that a requiem mass and the Christian prayers of ‘commendation and committal’ are not mere aesthetic choices in a market place of funeral options. Rather something real and significant is happening, on earth and in heaven, when these take place. Because I am a priest, I want to point the way to Jesus Christ. Naturally there will be those who disagree with my beliefs, I think they should have the right to exercise this choice, even if I think they’s misguided. But if this is your position, why invite me to the party?’

I agree Christian funeral liturgy is profound and sacred, and we both hold it can’t be imposed involuntarily on those who don’t share the faith, whether atheists, Jews, Muslims or Hindus. If you don’t feel you can point the way to Christ within the context of a funeral with secular elements, there’s no alternative but to opt out.

Your frustration is no doubt caused by genuine concern that people are missing out by choosing ‘Simply the Best’ on a sound system over prayers of commendation and committal. Perhaps your exasperation is heightened as you believe more people would share your view if they truly thought about what they wanted from a funeral. Some Christian-lites might, but decided atheists would not. The purpose of a funeral is in the eye of the beholder. That’s not relativism as we can still hold firm views for ourselves.

Footnote 1: I deliberately didn’t fully identify the priest until now as there’s a twist in this tale. Father Ed homlinson shared the above views while he was C of E vicar of St Barnabas church, Tunbridge Wells. He’s since converted to Catholicism where what can and cannot be done within the requiem mass are clearly defined. So no more hand-wringing conflicts between priestly obligations and pressure to offer secular choice. The menu is set, not à la carte. It’s now down to the free will of members of the Church to choose to dine or lapse elsewhere.

Footnote 2: At the time of speaking out, Fr T got a mixed response. ‘I think that most cremations I have been to that have been run by a humanist have all been more than off key,’ said Jane Greer. ‘Give me a good burial with a proper vicar anytime. It’s the difference between Cod’s Roe and Caviar.’ Denise Kantor Kaydar disagreed. ‘It should not matter if someone wants Verdi’s Requiem or Frank Sinatra. I think he is being a little insensitive, but he could be trying to incite a debate.’

Masses banned at the crem

Posted by Richard Rawlinson
Priests have been instructed to stop saying Mass for the dead at crematoriums. They’ve been sent a letter by their bishops saying the order is not rejecting crematoriums but aims to bring people back into churches.

Priests will be able to say a short prayer at a crematorium, similar to a prayer at a graveside, but the letter states that moving funerals away from churches risked emptying the ritual of its context and meaning.

It is in effect reforming the reform that authorised prayers at crematoriums but was then interpreted as allowing Mass, even though the premises might lack Christian symbols and be cut off from the deceased person’s parish community.

Ok, this initiative is by Belgian Flemish bishops only for now —here — but it’s part of wider efforts to uphold sanctity. An Irish bishop has recently clarified guidelines that eulogies should not be delivered during the funeral liturgy, but should take place outside the church – here.

One concern about a return to ‘two-centre’ ritual (church and crem or church and graveside) is likely to be the additional costs for those without much money.

More about the problem posed by crem committals for church-goers here.


Is ceremony dying?

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

This seems a strange question just after economically-challenged Britain has hosted the Olympics, a no-expenses-spared ceremonial games that unites nations in celebration of sporting prowess.

But as the cult of individuality nibbles away at established social conventions, more and more people seem to be caring less for ceremony on a more intimate level. It didn’t seem particularly surprising when a woman of my acquaintance announced on facebook she’d just had a quickie marriage in a register office, adding friends would be invited to a bash some months after the honeymoon. I’ve also attended a memorial drinks party several weeks after a no-frills committal to which only family were invited to the crematorium. As we tucked into canapes, the only significance of the occasion was that we all knew the reason for being there, and our conversation reflected this fact.

Even those who opt for ceremony can sometimes offer reasons other than a deep emotional or spiritual need to mark a profound rite of passage. Some admit to getting little satisfaction out of the ceremony itself, saying it’s just the bourgeois thing to do—and a means to the end of gathering people together for that social jolly afterwards.

It goes without saying there are many ceremony options available, though more for marriages than funerals. If a register office is deemed too sterile to get married in and you don’t want a church ceremony, you can choose any number of venues from a beach on a paradise buy cialis online melbourne island to an aristocratic stately pile. If a crematorium is deemed too soulless for your funeral plans, the alternatives are more limited.

Some non-religious folk opt for a church funeral followed by a brief committal at the crematorium, seeing this as the best way to do justice to the dead through words and music before the final farewell. However, while some liberal churches allow risqué eulogies and secular music, traditional churches remind us we’re in a house of God. When in Rome…

Some again opt for graveside ceremonies in woodland cemeteries, seeing this as solving the time problem of the crematorium, but with natural surroundings which might appeal more than incense-scented churches, with their icons making visible religious purpose.

Meanwhile, others are opting to get the cremation over with swiftly so they can plan a ceremony with the ashes rather than the body. This can, of course, be anything from the aforesaid memorial party, with urn of cremains in attendance, to something more ritualistic such as the scattering of ashes in a favoured, natural beauty spot.

Time and money are important considerations in life, and both can be found more readily with pre-planning. But there’s more to meaningful ceremony than advance scheduling and financial planning. Whether it’s a hit-the-spot celebration-of-life speech or a requiem mass, providers must provide, and receivers must be open to their cathartic potential. It’s a two-way process. Or is apathy as relevant a consumer choice as any other?

Requiem mass for Philpott children

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Before they were arrested and charged with the murder of their six children in a petrol-fuelled arson fire in their Derby council house last month, Mick and Mary Philpott started planning a funeral at the Anglican Derby Cathedral.

With the tragedy making headline news, they chose this local landmark, rightly predicting a lot of public demand to attend. The couple also requested six double-horse-drawn hearses to carry the coffins, and expected to raise funding through public donations.

As it turns out, the Philpott parents are not allowed to attend the funeral of children, Duwayne, Jade, John, Jack, Jessie and Jayden, aged between 13 and five. As their trial continues, they will remain in custody without compassionate leave. People may be innocent until proven guilty but the police deemed the threat of lynching by vigilantes too great, and the children deserve a peaceful funeral.

But another twist in the story is that early reports naming Derby Cathedral as the funeral venue have now switched to a full requiem mass at St Mary’s Catholic Church on St Alkmund’s Way. It takes place at 11am on Friday, followed by a private burial at Nottingham Road cemetery.

The substantial St Mary’s Church is not their local church, although their local priest, Fr Alan Burbridge of St George’s Church, will be giving the mass. He baptised some of the children and is affiliated to their primary school so knew them personally. Fr Burbridge visited 13-year-old Duwayne in hospital, where he died of smoke inhalation two days after the fire.

Over £14,000 has been raised by volunteers who set up a fund to pay for the funeral and burials, including six horse-drawn carriages.

Editor’s note: the children’s funeral is today. 

St Mary’s, Derby