Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Secular society's source of solace and spirituality

I had a funeral yesterday of a woman who left behind a husband and four grown children.

At the cemetery, I did the usual Rite of Committal.  At the end of it, the funeral director (on behalf of the family) usually thanks people for coming and invites them to some sort of reception for a meal.  But not this time.  At the end of the funeral director's remarks, one of the deceased's sons produced an iPod with external speakers, and announced that the family wanted two songs played.

The first song was "Time to Say Goodbye" by Andrea Bocelli & Sarah Brightman.  A bit of a tearjerker under these circumstances, but, well, if that's what you want.  So he placed the iPod w/speakers on top of the coffin, and everyone had a good cry.

Then, still sniffling, he announced that "Mom wouldn't want us leaving on a sad note", that she'd want everyone to be happy, and that we should all have a beer for mom.  Siblings then produced cases of beer and distributed cans to anyone and everyone (no under agers, as far as I could see).  He then announced that the second song that would be played was Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville", clicked on the iPod, and put the contraption back on mom's casket.

As I watched it all go down, I was thinking to myself, "We had prayers for the repose of this woman's soul, readings from the Word of God, a decent homily if I may say so, reception of the Holy Eucharist, all interspersed with sacred music."  Yet none of that was going to fill the "God pocket" inside of them!  They had to do something extra.  Something for themselves.  Something that would "make them feel happy", and none of the Church's rituals did that for them.  I watched them as the song went on.  They were participating by singing along (dare I say they were doing so "fully, conscious, and actively"?), yet at the same time they were almost contemplative.

This is where the vast majority of our thirty-somethings are, when it comes to their "spirituality".  Mass attendance happens at Christmas, Easter, or when their kids (or their friends' kids) receive a Sacrament.  The Church's ceremonies have no meaning to them, except for it's theatrical aspect.  Purely natural, no supernatural.  They know little or nothing about basic doctrine about "the four last things", and so, for them, Heaven is some sort of hotel/resort that you check into but never leave (thank you, Eagles).  Everyone who dies goes to Heaven.  Oh, and their pets too.

You can't blame them; they went through Catholic religious education at a time when knowing truths about God was not as important as how they "feel or experience" God personally.  Also, since many of our thirty-somethings stopped receiving any kind of catechesis the moment after they received Confirmation, they may biologically be 30+, and they may understand the natural world as a 30+ person, but they still have the supernatural outlook of a 12 or 13 year old! Because of that, there's no comprehension of what is being done for the deceased at a Catholic funeral; they don't see any need (much less the necessity) to pray for the soul of a deceased person.  Nor do they see their need (or the deceased's need) for the Church's funeral rites.  This gets replaced by their own personal version of the same.  In short, the funeral is about THEM, and their grief at the loss of the deceased.

We're partially to blame for this.  We stopped talking about death, judgment, heaven, and hell.  We have become Egyptian in our attitude towards death and the afterlife, thinking our deceased's coffin needs to be filled with the things they enjoyed in this life: their favorite cigarettes, romance novels, transistor radio, etc.  We allow the white funeral pall, which recalls baptismal dignity, to be replaced by things like a sport jersey or some other keepsake.  We practically insist that some family member or friend, most of whom are untrained in public speaking and at the moment in some serious grief, get up at the funeral Mass in front of a crowd and read the inspired Word of God (If we're lucky, their words are discernible and they get through it without breaking down).  We allow eulogies that, at times, take longer than the Mass, give the people something to remember other than the homily, and at times are irreverent and at other times border on scandalous.  All for the sake of making the family "happy"; hoping they'll leave the funeral "feeling good" about it.  The worst nightmare of any parish priest is for a letter of complaint from a grief stricken widow or family to go to the bishop's desk (even if it is because the celebrant of the funeral would not allow the deceased's granddaughter to do her Irish step dance routine "one last time for grandpa").

As I stood there listening to the words (and don't get me wrong, Margaritaville is a fun song, in it's proper place), it hit me that this was where these people were genuinely drawing their comfort.  Not from the Church, not from a Priest, and not from their faith in eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but from Jimmy Buffett (the man who also gave us such tunes as "The @$$hole Song" and "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw?").

I'm sure that every time they're in some bar or some franchised restaurant with loud "good times" music on a perpetual playlist, they'll get a bit misty and think of mom.  But I ask myself if they will look for comfort in church?  Right now, my answer leans towards, "no".


Barb Szyszkiewicz said...

You've given me good food for thought here.

I recently attended a funeral for a Secular Franciscan from my fraternity, who had been in a nursing home so long that I had never met her. I was asked to be the lector for the funeral Mass.

While I didn't mind, I thought it strange that none of her family members took that role.

But your comments on this make sense. It was my privilege to serve as lector (and I did consider it a privilege) and it was also a gift I could give to the family; allowing them to have the time to be in their grief and not on the spot, grieving in the pulpit.

Victoria said...

Father, as Barb said much food for thought in your post. What, in your opinion, can the Church do to re orient these well meaning people?

it hit me that this was where these people were genuinely drawing their comfort. Not from the Church, not from a Priest, and not from their faith in eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but from Jimmy Buffett

I hadn't thought of it like that. At my sister's funeral You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings was played. I cringed but this song gave my brother-in-law comfort. Yes it was all about us. Is it too late to turn this around?

The bishops in the Church have presided over the collapse of catechesis in Catholic schools and CCD classes for the last forty years. I can't understand why they didn't want to ensure that the future generations received the sound instruction in the Faith that they, presumbly, received.

Charles Cowling said...

There is, indeed, a strong desire these days to banish sadness from funerals and express emotion in the form of mawkish or prettified sentimentality. Inspired by your post I have written about this in my blog at www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk, and I have quoted you.

You have written with marvellous acuity, seriousness and resigned humour. I enjoyed this piece enormously. Thank you.

Craig McGillivary said...

Of course the funeral about them. They are the ones who are alive. I think the truly adult attitude toward the supernatural is that it plays no explanatory role in our world. The natural world includes all the things we can know about, and we should orient ourselves morally and spiritually around it.