What should be said at a funeral?
The latest scandal in Boston has prompted many of us to think about what should—and should not—be said at a funeral.
When I die, I don’t want the homilist at my funeral saying nice things about me. Kind words will do me no good. I won’t be there to hear them. My family and friends will be there, but they’ll have more important work to do: praying for me. I don’t want to have them reminded about what a good guy I was; I want them reminded that I need prayers!
It’s wholly inappropriate to bring people together for the purpose of prayer, and then distract them from that purpose. At the wake, or back at home after the burial, family and friends can console each other with happy reminiscences about the deceased. But at the funeral, let’s focus on the most important work at hand: trying to get that soul into heaven.
A funeral serves an important secondary purpose, too. It reminds us, the living, that someday we will face the great judgment, and we must prepare for that day. We spend much of our time ignoring the reality of our own mortality; this is a rare opportunity to look death in the face, and respond not with fear but with Christian realism, recognizing both the sadness of parting with life and the glory that awaits us. Again, the artificially cheerful approach defeats the purpose.
The Byzantine funeral ritual includes a beautiful meditation on death, judgment, and God’s mercy by St. John of Damascus. As I’ve buried my parents in the Melkite Catholic Church these last two years, I’ve found in this prayer an immensely powerful reminder that they needed prayers, and I would need them, too. If you want to bring something extraneous into the liturgy when I am buried, bring this:
(As you read these words, think how salutary it would have been for the rich and powerful world leaders who attended Ted Kennedy’s funeral to hear this message.)
Funeral Anthem of St. John of Damascus
What pleasure is there in our life is not mixed with sorrow? What glory on earth that lasts? All are more fleeting than shadow, and more deceitful than a dream! In one moment death takes all away. But, You O Christ, in the light of your face, in the beauty of your holiness, give peace to our brother (sister). You have chosen, for You are the Lover of Mankind.
What struggle my soul will have to sustain when its time will come to be separated from my body! What suffering I shall have to endure alone! No one will be at hand to have mercy on me. If I turn my eyes even to angels, I will be pleading in vain. If I stretch out my hands to my fellow men, I will find no one to help. Beloved Brethren, let us then consider how short is our life and look up to Christ who alone grants mercy and peace.
All human things are vain since they cannot survive the grave: will riches survive, or glory attend us beyond the tomb? No! When death approaches, all these vanish. Let us then cry out to Christ, our immortal King, that He may give rest to him (her) who has departed from us, and place him (her) in the joy of heaven.
Where are the affections of the world? Where are the vain dreams of delight? Where is gold or silver? Where is the multitude of servants and attendants? All is dust and ashes, or a shadow that passes away. Brethren, let us then pray to Christ our immortal King and say: “O Lord, grant your blessings to your departed servant (handmaid) and give rest to his (her) soul in your everlasting happiness in heaven.”
Let us call to mind the words of the Prophet who said: “I am dust, and ashes.” Let us also look at the graves, and at the bones they contain. Is there a difference between king and beggar? Where is the rich and where the poor? Where is the just and where the sinner? O Lord our God, give rest to the soul of your servant and number him (her) among the just.
O Lord my God, You have endowed me with two elements—one visible and the other invisible. You have formed my body from clay, and breathed into me a soul from your divine breath. O Christ our God, give rest to the soul of your servant (handmaid) in the Kingdom of those who live forever, and in the company of the just.
In the beginning You made man in your image and likeness. You placed him in paradise and gave him power over the whole creation. But he was deceived by the devil and transgressed your command by tasting of the forbidden fruit. You sentenced him to return to that dust from which he had been taken: wherefore we pray to You, O our God, to grant peace and rest to the soul of your departed servant (handmaid).
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