Comment Opinion & Features

Funeral eulogies? Save it for the wake

An Old Rite Requiem Mass in memory of King Louis XVI is celebrated in the crypt of Strasbourg Cathedral (Wikimedia)

A priest in County Cork has caused ripples by deploring the nature of some of the gifts brought to the altar during a funeral Mass. These, says Fr Tomás Walsh, have included beer, cigarettes, a football jersey, a television remote control and even a packet of detergent. He says this isn’t appropriate or respectful. He has also deplored the way that some eulogies to the departed are so lengthy.

The ecclesiastical authorities frown on these embellishments of the traditional Requiem Mass, although in my experience the regulations are seldom implemented rigidly, out of sensitivity and tolerance.
Personally, I am entirely in line with the ecclesiastical authorities, and when I depart this world, I want a straightforward, spiritual and lofty Requiem Mass, along with hymns in which everyone can join in.

I would (literally) be dead embarrassed at the thought of eulogies at my funeral. Please don’t! Most eulogies, in my experience, fall into a category well defined by the Irish word plamás, being a mixture of flattery and eyewash. They seldom represent the complex mixture of the real person, but spout much sentimental nonsense about what a wonderful person he/she was (while down in the pew, those who knew him/her may be having more sceptical thoughts).

As for bringing objects representing a person’s life to the altar – well, over my dead body. Some mourners feel impelled to deliver a eulogy, and some priests will think it right to allow that. Some obviously also allow mementos on the coffin.

But there’s a dignity and wisdom in conducting a Requiem Mass simply, just according to the rite. For me, keep the eulogies – and jokes – for the wake afterwards.

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Quentin Tarantino has a cult following as a film director, but his depiction of violence can be troubling. There is often an underlying theme of the reckless destruction of human life in his pictures. Pulp Fiction treated killing as a casual act.

His new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, takes up the theme of one of the most atrocious of Hollywood murders, in 1969 – when the pregnant actress Sharon Tate was horribly slain by Charles Manson’s followers. Some of my friends refuse to see the new Tarantino because they abhor the depiction of this scene.

In fact, the Sharon Tate killing is not shown – there’s a surprise “alternative” twist to the story. A different scene of violence occurs towards the end, but it’s done in an almost ironic way. It is suggesting that the film itself is about the make-believe of film-making; so this scene is deliberately fictional.

Tarantino is insightful about Hollywood, which has been so influential in our culture – and the casual way in which killing has been treated in many a Western. And then there’s the unacknowledged star of so many pictures – the stuntman, here played touchingly by Brad Pitt.

The French for stuntman is cascadeur, the “faller”. Perhaps it’s an allusion to the human condition.

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My last August offering of poetry short enough to be expressed through the medium of Twitter is by Emily Dickinson, who died in 1886 aged 55. This is her sweetly feminine verse, “Not in Vain”, of just 37 words.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Dickinson came from old Puritan stock and lived reclusively in her native Massachusetts. Unmarried, she spent much of her later years caring for her invalid mother. She was episodically religious and maintained a long friendship with a Presbyterian minister, Charles Wadsworth.

After her death, her sister Lavinia found a cache of her poetry, which was then little-known. In recent years her life has been the subject of two films, her poetry set to music by composers including Aaron Copland, and her work translated into many languages, including Kurdish. This short poem’s mention of saving a robin accords well with our green politics of today.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4