03 September 2008

'Unequal rites for all'

Since we are travellers and pilgrims in the world, let us ever ponder on the end of the road, that is of our life, for the end of our roadway is our home (St Columban, 8th sermon).

Patsy McGarry, the religious affairs correspondent of The Irish Times, had an interesting article on last Saturday's paper about the inconsistencies in Catholic funerals in Ireland. The recent funeral of Ronnie Drew led to letters in the paper, some from people who weren't allowed the same latitude with regard to music at the funerals of family members as the Drew family was.

Patsy McGarry: Ronnie Drew's funeral has opened a debate about inconsistencies in the way guidelines for funeral Masses are applied, with 'secular' elements such as popular songs and eulogies being allowed in some cases but not in others, leading to charges that some bereaved are more equal than others.

Different dioceses in Ireland have different approaches. Nearly all of the funerals I have attended in Ireland have focused on the Mass. Music, if any, was Church music, some good, some bad, but not secular. However, many 'homilies', particularly at priests' funerals, have tended to be eulogies. One or two have borne a more than passing similarity to some of the awful drivel given by a half-drunk best man after a wedding dinner.

I think that a homily at a funeral can link the word of God to some aspect of the life of the person who has died where the deceased has exemplified some aspect of Christian life. But there should never be any premature 'canonization' of the person, especially if there are aspects of their lives known to all that were at variance with the Gospel.

We no more help the dead, or those who mourn them, by giving them false praise than if we were to give false praise to a starving man while failing to give him something to eat.

When the faith was strong in Ireland people faced death squarely and prayed for the dead. I've been at many joyful funerals, including some in recent years, when along with praying for the repose of the soul of the person who had gone ahead, there was a sense of gratitude to God for having been blessed by and through that person. And our faith in the Resurrection is the source of our joy. But funerals were funerals.

I've been unable to find an account of the funeral of Paddy Harrington, the father of golfer Padraig Harrington, who died three years ago. But I distinctly remember reading at the time that before he died, Paddy asked that his funeral be an occasion for people to pray for him and that the funeral Mass was to be an expression of faith, not a celebration of his sporting prowess. He played Gaelic Football for Cork in the 1950s. He also spotted the talent of his son Padraig and helped him develop it, while also training him in good manners, something Padraig is noted for.

I think that it is proper for a family member, or a representative of a family, say a few brief words of thanks at the end of Mass to those attending. And I think it is quite legitimate to even say a few words about the deceased. Once or twice I've been at funerals where the priest totally ignored the grieving family and just went through the motions, as it were, forgetting the emotions of people. This has left me feeling angry.

In Ireland people usually gather for something to eat after a burial, in a hotel or at home. I think that this is perhaps the time to celebrate in a 'secular' way. It's not a liturgical setting but it's part of the whole process of grieving. People can share their tributes and the favourite music of the deceased to their hearts' content.

A famous British TV comedy series, Only Fools and Horses, had a hilarious episode where Del Boy and his brother Rodney, the two central characters, went to a fancy-dress party as Batman and Robin. When they got there they discovered that the host had died suddenly and that they were at a wake instead. Nobody had informed them.

I think that some funerals are like that. At least Del Boy and Rodney felt embarrassed.

Photos of Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, where my parents and maternal grandparents are buried. The photo at the top is that of the grave of Liam Whelan of Manchester United, killeed in the Munich crash on 6 February 1958. I always stop and say a prayer for him when visiting my family's graves. I found this photo here and that it was taken by a man named Andrew Coyle, who I don't know. I know that Liam, a devout Catholic, had sent money to his mother to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. she used the money instead towards the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes over her son's grave.

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