Funerals can be a tricky business. For the laity, as someone once told me, it is like organising a wedding, but you only have one week to do it in; for the clergy too, there can be pitfalls. Though most funerals pass off without untoward incident, one does hear of strange tales from time to time. Once, in a certain town in East Anglia, a priest had to preside at a burial: on one side of the grave was the wife and family; on the opposite side was the “other” (or “real” as she put it) wife and her family; between the two were a line of policemen.
Presiding at the funeral of Germany’s elder statesman ought to have been easy enough. After all, everyone admired Helmut Kohl, and with good reason. His achievements were considerable. Sadly, though, his funeral has been caught up in controversy bordering on scandal, as is recounted by the Guardian in a lengthy article. The word “awkward” does not really cover it. It seems that Mr Kohl – aided and abetted by his second wife – had fallen out with lots of old friends and allies, including Angela Merkel, and his two sons by his first wife. The state funeral is to take place in Strasbourg at the European Parliament, and not on German soil, in order to cut down the role of all the former friends of the former Chancellor.
All this is rather sad, and the fact that Mr Kohl’s sons have been excluded from the family home by their stepmother seems outrageous and most undignified. Mr Kohl was a Christian Democrat and a Catholic, so there has been a Mass celebrated for him in St Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin. The Guardian tells us: “Prelate Karl Jüsten made a particular point of addressing “the many who had a difficult relationship with him”, and stated: “May God reconcile us to him, if we did not find reconciliation with him in life.” The Monsignor (Prelate seems to be a literal translation) was quite right to address the issue. Funerals are supposed to bring people together, rather than be occasions for point scoring.
After the trip to Strasbourg, Kohl’s coffin will be brought to Speyer for another Mass and burial in the grounds of the Cathedral there. The celebrant of that Mass will have to choose his words carefully, and will, I trust, do as well as Mgr Jüsten.
Few of us are likely to be involved in such a high-profile case as the Kohl funeral, but we will all have to go to funerals in the future and we may have to organise them too; we will all have to give a thought to our own funerals in due course, which is something to be commended. But some of the questions raised by the Kohl funeral do perhaps make themselves felt in all funerals – what to do about the relation no one likes, or the person you have not talked to for years, or the uncle or cousin you simply cannot stand, or the person whom you may wish to exclude for whatever reason. We have all got our baggage, and we all have our grudges. But perhaps a funeral is not the best forum at which to settle them.
The Mass is about reconciliation – the reconciliation with God won for us by Christ on the Cross. A funeral Mass should be our chance at reconciliation with each other, or, at the very least, a time when we try and repress our lower instincts. The controversies surrounding the Kohl funeral, sadly, are a good indication of what to avoid at all costs.