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Cilla Black deserved a different kind of Requiem Mass

Cilla: a delightful Catholic lady (Photo: PA)

I remember someone telling me a few years ago that Cilla Black had “returned to the Church” and was attending Mass again. I didn’t know she was one of us. Priscilla White, her real name, doesn’t sound very Catholic. Liverpool was still a sectarian city when she was born in 1941. As in Glasgow and Belfast, Christian names and surnames often identified your religion. My Liverpudlian maternal grandfather was called William Benbow – definitely not a Catholic name. He came from a Protestant family and after he converted some of his siblings refused to speak to him. But in Cilla’s case, her middle names cleared up any confusion. Maria Veronica – you can’t get more RC than that.

Her funeral last week was packed with weeping celebrities. These were tears of real grief, not theatrical mourning from luvvies. Cilla was a generous person – in her private life and on television. You could tell from her rapport with the audience and contestants on Blind Date that she enjoyed putting people at their ease. The fans who squeezed into the narrow street outside St Mary’s, Woolston, felt they’d lost a family friend. There was none of the weirdness that marked the Diana griefathon.

What was a bit weird was the funeral service itself. To quote the Daily Mail, “in a service which combined solemn Catholic tradition and the sparky modern touch you would expect from a Sixties musical pioneer, Cilla’s hit Anyone Who Had A Heart played while the 340 mourners in the church took communion, and her coffin was carried out to the music of the Beatles”.

Paul O’Grady, formerly the drag queen Lily Savage, “had the congregation in stitches with his amusing recollections
of his long friendship with Cilla”. They included an anecdote about the time he broke his nose in a Jacuzzi in Barbados. It involved frozen sprouts, a toilet roll and Cilla rushing in and out of the loo in a “terrible nylon slip”.

That’s the sort of thing you sometimes hear at a memorial service held months after the funeral. But this was a Requiem Mass. O’Grady recalled these antics from a lectern in the sanctuary. The service didn’t just add a “sparky modern touch” to Catholic tradition, as the Mail reported. That tradition was heavily watered down – presumably in order to accommodate the wishes of Cilla Black’s family and celebrity friends.

I don’t want to imply that the whole occasion was tasteless. Cilla’s funeral was always going to have a showbizzy flavour to it, and that’s not incompatible with worship. For example, Sir Cliff Richard sang a soft-rock number called Faithful One. Not my cup of tea – but it’s a “gospel song” addressed to the Lord. And when he said “Cilla, this is just a hiccup in our relationship, and we will see you again” he was expressing his Christian belief in an afterlife. O’Grady, on the other hand, concluded with “Ta-ra, girl, I will see you on life’s highway”, which makes no theological sense at all. Normally that wouldn’t matter, but this was during a Mass celebrated precisely because Cilla had left life’s highway.

The incongruous elements of the service can’t be blamed on Cilla’s family: you can’t expect them to know the correct form of a Requiem. The fault lies with the Archdiocese of Liverpool. Bishop Tom Williams, who presided at the Mass, should have guessed that Paul O’Grady would leave religion out of his eulogy. And someone should have explained gently to the family that one of Cilla’s pop songs, however poignant, isn’t suitable for Holy Communion. Nor is it customary to play the Beatles as recessional music.

These objections sound snooty, I know. But there’s a sensible reason to raise them. Parish priests often have to deal with bereaved families who want to turn Requiems into “celebrations” of the deceased’s life punctuated by their favourite pop songs. It’s not easy to turn down these requests. Clergy will find it even more difficult now that the rules have been broken for a celebrity with the blessing of an auxiliary bishop.

There’s a wider problem, too. The English Church is no stranger to light entertainment, thanks to the number of comedians and singers who started life in Catholic communities in the North. That’s great, but in recent years the hierarchy has attempted to boost its popular credentials by clinging on to the coattails of Catholic telly personalities (in one case, and I needn’t even mention the man’s name, displaying culpable naivety). This is not good PR: it makes the Church look a bit desperate.

Cilla Black was a delightful Catholic lady. I hope I won’t cause offence when I say that she deserved, but did not receive, a straightforward Requiem Mass – in which the focus was firmly on her relationship with God rather than on her famous friends.

Damian Thompson is associate editor of The Spectator and a director of the Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Catholic Herald (28/8/15).

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