Back in the day, when everybody was 12 years oldwell, that’s how it seemed to mewe had a colorful expression designed to convey our undiluted skepticism of a peer’s ill-considered and overly ambitious plans. O.K., we’d say, it’s your funeral. It was a handy way to distance ourselves from a friend’s rash behavior and a way for us to express our own clear thinking, precocious wisdom and, ultimately, our weary recognition that we were powerless to stop this bit of foolishness.
O.K., it’s your funeral. What a fine little phrase. I haven’t heard anyone use it recently, but I think it is time to restore it to its former glory. I commend the phrase, if not the attitudes it conveys, to parish priests and bishops who seem intent on controlling what happens, and what does not, at a funeral or memorial Mass.
In the middle of my middle age, I am becoming a connoisseur of funeral Masses, although not by choice. Like poor little Ralphie in the movie A Christmas Story, who became a connoisseur of soap after putting together several naughty words in the same sentence, my newfound expertise is not the result of happy circumstance. I am of an age when the parents of friends are dying at an alarming rate.
While I would not claim to be a regular funeral-goer, I have been to enough to appreciate a Mass that satisfies our need to mourn and to celebrate a life, and that addresses both our anxieties and our faith.
The best of them are uniquein their music, in their preaching, in their individuality. The worst of them are generic, musty and, if you’ll excuse the reference, lifeless.
A good priest can turn a generic funeral into a faith-filled celebration of an individual life. Rigid rules and stubbornness bordering on cruelty can turn a celebration into mere ritual.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a memorial service for an occasional writer for this magazine, James Davitt, who died at the age of 79 after an eventful life as a labor lawyer and tireless campaigner for social justice. More than 30 years ago, he publicly resigned as a member of the Waterfront Commission of New York Harborat a congressional hearing, no lessto protest continued mob influence on the docks. It was front page news in The New York Times. You may not be surprised to learn that in subsequent years, he was turned down for a series of government jobs for which he was immensely qualified.
His memorial service was a magnificent tribute to a life spent in service to family, truth and humanity. A priest he befriended in Brooklyn in the 1960’s left a sickbed to deliver a stirring homily/eulogy. The readings were well chosen, the music a combination of sacred and popular. The most moving moment, for me anyway, came after the final blessing. Suddenly, over the church’s sound system, we heard the voice of Sting, the British singer, accompanied by the Irish folk group, the Chieftains. Most of the words were in Gaelic, but even we non-Gaelic speakers could tell the song was about defiance and courage and life itself. The song ends with a brilliant combination of drums and bagpipes and Sting’s brilliant voice conveying words we didn’t know but emotions that brought a smile to our faces.
A friend afterward said, I don’t know what that song was about, but that sure was the way to end a funeral. The song’s title was Mo Ghile Mear, Gaelic for My Hero. Yes, that was the way to end a funeral.
Or was it? I have no doubt that some priests and bishops would have been horrified. Some dioceses have banned all such music from funerals, leading to controversy in New York when Danny Boy was removed from the list of approved funeral songs. Irish-Americans have since shown that they have not completely forgotten the art of subterfugemany funerals in New York now feature a song with religious references, but sung to the tune of Danny Boy.
Unless you don’t realize for whom the bell tolls, it is impossible to attend a funeral without thinking of your own. After witnessing and participating in Jim Davitt’s, several mourners said they would insist on something similar. One friend said he had a plan in writing, with musical selections and his choice for a eulogist. I’m going to show mine to my parish priest, one friend said. If he doesn’t like it, I’ll find another parish.
He might have to exercise that option. Another topic of funeral conversation was the ban on lay eulogies that several dioceses and parishes have put into place, formally and informally. Unfortunately, given our mobility these days, many of us do not have personal friendships with priests. The result, at a funeral, can be a cold and impersonal homily by the presider. Hence the eulogy delivered by a loved one.
Priests have plenty of horror stories about eulogists who were either too emotional to speak or who were too flip and irreverent about death and the deceased or who talked on and on and on. There is no question that establishing the right tone of familiarity and reverence, and doing so while controlling your emotions, is a delicate task. Priests and bishops are right to be concerned.
But the people in the pews have a right to be concerned, too. Instead of dealing with cold, unforgiving rules regulating music and eulogies, they would like to hear their priests and bishops say, O.K., it’s your funeral.
Because, after all, it is.