Funerals that pay tribute to the foibles and frailties of the deceased make me deeply uneasy

A Requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral (Photo: PA)

I was at a Requiem Mass this morning; nothing unusual in that, of course. Yet this Mass was highly unusual in this respect: there was no panegyric of the dead. The deceased man had made it clear to his widow before he died that he wanted the homily to focus on the faith – specifically the theology of death and resurrection, with accompanying prayers for the dead – and not on him.

This must be the first funeral I have attended since the death of my father more than 30 years ago when a “celebration of the life” has not been a central feature of the service. How and when did it creep in that a funeral has to concentrate on a deceased person’s achievements, foibles and lovable frailties – indeed, on his or her imminent canonisation – to the exclusion of almost everything else?

I suspect this practice has crept in alongside a weakened understanding and belief in life after death and a thin grasp of sin and its effects. And the more the hope in the life to come and the particular judgment has receded, the more the living cling to memories of their dead relative when they were alive – as though this world is all that there is. Even Catholic funerals have often succumbed to mawkish and sentimental gestures, making me feel deeply uneasy and theologically adrift.

As I write this the latest batch of CTS booklets has come through the door. I open one entitled Dying in Christ to find a little meditation by Mother Teresa at the back: “Death, in the final analysis, is only the easiest and quickest means to go back to God. If only we could make people understand that we come from God and that we have to go back to Him!”

There you have it: no mournful pop songs, no tributes to the deceased’s love of a pint at his local pub, his efforts on behalf of mankind; just natural grief at the loss and hope in the mercy of God. I left this morning’s funeral more comforted and consoled than at many a funeral I have attended in recent years.

I once read that in the days of the Hapsburg Empire there was a quaint yet beautiful ritual to receive the body of a dead emperor into the cathedral in Vienna: attendants with the coffin would knock on the doors once and a voice from within would ask: “Who demands entry?” Many grand titles would be read out. The doors would remain shut. The attendants would knock a second time and the same question would be asked. The response would be a recital of yet more worldly honours. The doors would still remain shut. Then the attendants would knock a third time; when the same question was asked the response this time would simply be “A poor sinner”. The doors would be thrown open and the coffin would proceed inside.

Perhaps this old custom could be modified and adapted for ordinary usage?