A Celebration of the Life of the Deceased, Or Not, As the Case May Be …

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A Celebration of the Life And Music of the Deceased Or Not, As The Case May Be …

            These I Read The News Today postings of mine seem to have taken on a rather Catholic coloring.  The latest news item to bring out the itchy trigger finger in me is along the same lines.

            Seems that, as reported in the Times, Archbishop Denis Hart, the Roman Catholic prelate of Melbourne, Australia, is trying to draw the line against efforts to characterize Catholic funeral services there as “Celebrations of the Life of …” or to play secular music.  “Romantic ballads, pop or rock music, political songs, [or] football club songs” do not make the cut.

            You can see where he’s coming from.  Religious services ought to be, um, religious.  And what Hart surely takes from that is that they should be about God, for instance, and not about us mere mortals except as in relationship with God.  Religious services should not import values that contradict religious values, either by directly challenging them (e.g. Jim Morrison hollering: “You canNOT petition the Lord with prayer”) or by shutting them out (most love songs, for example, and certainly, to choose an example from Archbishop Hart’s bailiwick, the Melbourne Victory fight song – musical performances where references to the Divinity are scarce or nonexistent).

            Well and good.  Except that nowhere is it written that funerals must be exclusively religious services.  Even when they incorporate a Mass, and Catholic funerals generally do, they have a lot of different functions:

            A) Funerals can, and I guess when delivered under Catholic auspices, must provide reassurance that the life of the departed is changed but not extinguished, and that God will ultimately save every creature and dry every tear. 

            B) But they also have to help the bereaved grieve; and if you think grieving is about being all reassured that the departed is safe and sound in the arms of his Maker, you’ve never experienced real grief.  Grief is a confrontation with the fact that the person who died is nullified, erased from this worldly existence of ours, and a confrontation as well with the tenuousness of the evidence that that person still goes on in some other mode.  Grief is acknowledging that in important ways that person is lost to us, and that religious reassurances could be wrong.  The grieving process is about going through all that, and moving on.

            C) And finally, and I would maintain quite legitimately, funerals are to celebrate the life of the person who died.  (And anyone, even an archbishop, who says otherwise is ignoring his own humanity.)

            So even granting Hart’s premise about religious services, funerals are generally hybrid affairs, and surely the secular objectives are equally pressing with the religious ones.   And to reach the secular goals, immersion in the music loved by the dearly departed may be singularly effective.

             As it happens, though, I don’t even grant Hart’s premise, that religious services must explicitly be about God.  Let me illustrate with a fairly recent memory.

            A few years ago, a friend of mine, still middle-aged, died suddenly.  His brief final illness struck him right in front of us all at church, while he was singing in the choir, a circumstance from which it may well be appreciated that there was no hostility on his part or ours to church music. But this friend had been a disc jockey in earlier life, and popular music was always important to him.  For the funeral, his daughters put together a tape of short excerpts from songs the man had loved.  For about ten minutes we listened, rapt, as the melodies, some shallow, some profound, none religious so far as I can recall, helped bring him back among us.  We were freed up to love him again in a way that would not have been possible without this aid.  Damn straight we were celebrating his life!  Do I think God felt slighted or envious?  Do I think God was worried we were focusing our attention in the wrong place?  Uh, nooo.  That tape was the high point of the funeral, and I don’t think for a minute it took any of us away from God.

            I’ve written elsewhere in this blog that if, as Catholics are all taught, there is a God who made us all in His image and likeness, it’s hard to see how the distinction between sacred and profane is possible.  The Archbishop’s ukase, I think, tries to preserve this hopeless distinction.  Love songs direct our attention to romance, and perhaps to sex.  But God is the Author of these things.  We cannot focus on them without focusing on Him, by another name.  Fight songs direct our attention to athletic feats and identification with teams.  But God is the maker of the bodies and the competitive spirit with which we and our sports heroes exercise.

            Celebrating the life of the deceased is celebrating God.  Not in some ethereal, metaphorical kind of way, either.  If we are believers, the departed is a piece of God, a member of the Mystical Body, whom we shall never see again in this life.  Best to bring that person, with all his or her good and bad points, into high relief, before letting him or her go.  And to do so fully integrating fight songs, ballads or whatever else made that person happy or special, right into the sacredest parts of the service.

            Doing so honors God just as much as it does the person whose death has brought us together.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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