Never a Eulogy

In the recent terrific film The Queen, set in London during the immediate aftermath of the death of Princess Diana, England's royal family faces mounting public pressure to "comfort the nation" and engage in showy demonstrations of grief over the loss of the "People's Princess."  Their intention was to pray for the deceased and treat the matter with dignity.  "Restrained grief and sober, private mourning," Queen Elizabeth II says.  Yet in the end, she capitulates, visiting an impromptu shrine in front of Buckingham Palace and reading a prepared statement that sounds the emotion-drenched notes demanded by the public. 

Catholics in the United States aren't immune from this phenomenon.  In recent decades Catholic funerals have come to resemble the London scenes depicted in the film.  Friends and family members of the deceased often deliver lengthy, emotional, anecdote-filled remembrances of the departed at the funeral Mass.  As would-be eulogists take turns sharing their memories from the lectern, the remembrances can last up to thirty minutes. 

It would probably come as a surprise to most Catholics to learn that such eulogies at funeral Masses are prohibited by longstanding Church teachings.  Last year, a priest in the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, made local news by letting his parish know that he would start enforcing that prohibition.

The priest, Father Dan Vogelpohl, is pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in a Northern Kentucky suburb of Cincinnati.  In discussing his intent to enforce the ban on eulogies at Masses, he issued a four-part catechesis on the purpose of a funeral Mass.

 In part one of his catechesis, he distilled the Church's teaching on the ban:  "In 1989 the Vatican published the revised Order of Christian Funerals (OCF) for the United States. The long-standing prohibition of eulogies at Catholic funerals was again upheld and restated. ‘A brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy.'"

Father Vogelpohl also cited the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal promulgated by John Paul II in year 2000, in which the prohibition of eulogies was again restated: "At the Funeral Mass there should, as a rule, be a short homily, but never a eulogy of any kind."

But just as importantly, he explained why the ban exists in the first place.  "The firm belief of the Catholic Church is that the Christian funeral is not a celebration of the life of the person who has died, even though we honor and express gratitude for all God's gifts to that person."

He then borrowed words from Archbishop Pilarczyk of nearby Cincinnati: "The funeral liturgy is a celebration of salvation and mercy, of grace and eternal life. It is not meant to be a commemoration (much less a canonization) of the person who has died. Extended remembering of the deceased often results in forgetting the Lord."

Yet we've been taught by television and popular culture that the eulogy is the high point of a funeral.  Many mourners, accordingly, seem to think that giving a eulogy is a right of the faithful.  Father Vogelpohl recalled an example.  "As I was about to begin the final commendation, a relative of the deceased came forward and politely told me to ‘sit down, because he had a few things to say.' He then went on for over twenty minutes with a detailed chronology of the deceased's life."

Priests and parish leaders have become accustomed to accommodating the wishes of grieving family members.  Thus, even priests who know about the ban are loath to enforce it.  As one priest told me, "It's a tough situation.  Frankly, given the circumstances, I permit things that I probably shouldn't.  But the handful of days between the death of a loved one and a funeral isn't an ideal time to catechize the faithful."

Is there a place for remembrances when Catholics say farewell to a loved one?  Yes.  Here is Father Vogelpohl:  "The Church's Order of Christian Funerals provides for a Funeral Vigil. This is ordinarily celebrated at the time of what we commonly call the 'visitation,' 'wake,' or 'lay out' for the deceased." He explained that "the vigil consists of prayers and scripture readings. The end of the Vigil Service is a very good time for a family member or friend to speak in remembrance of the deceased."

In the case of my late father, his friends and family members were invited to share anecdotes and stories at a reception after his funeral Mass.  It worked wonderfully.  The relaxed setting of the reception took the pressure off the speakers, and people who might not be up to speaking to a church full of people, regardless of its licitness, felt comfortable enough to share a story or two.

So let's salute Father Vogelpohl for addressing a touchy subject with both charity and directness.  It would be wise for everyone — priests, parish leaders, even grieving family members — to follow his example.

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  • Guest

    Father Vogelpohl is not quite right (and he knows it).

    The Order of Christian Funerals does indeed stipulate (notes #27, #141) a “ban” on euologies at the funeral Mass, but that ban is directed to the priest–telling him what not to do in the time usually reserved for the homily right after the Gospel. The intention of the ban is that a homily “dwell[ing] on God’s compassionate love and on the paschal mystery of the Lord as proclaimed in the Scripture readings” (#141) should never replaced by a mere eulogy.

    The OCF, however, does allow for a brief eulogy right after Communion if the Final Commendation is going to be celebrated at the Church (as it almost always is) and not later at the cemetary. In this case, “A member or a friend of the family may speak in remembrance of the deceased before the final commendation begins” (note #170).

    What Fr. V. is trying to avoid (understandably)is the indeed all-too-often-experienced situation where, for example, at the death of a high-schooler (who never attended Mass), a buddy of his gets up at eulogy time and tells everyone how great a party animal he was and how he’ll be remembered for always being willing to pay for a round of drinks “as he’s probably doing in heaven right now!” The purpose of a eulogy is to recall to those present how the deceased’s faith was instrumental in his living a good life, not how he lived a good life despite his faith.

    But when, as so often happens, that faith seems indeed to have been absent…. then Fr. V (and other priests with backbone) simply ought to say, “No, it’s best not to have a euology at Mass, but you may do so at the funeral home, or at the cemetary.” That is better than making it seem that the Church is banning outright something that it isn’t.

  • Guest

    It seems to me that it is simply an enforcement of a more general ‘rule’ which is that only a priest or deacon may give a homily at Mass.

  • Guest

    alfjr,

    The O.C.F. and the G.I.R.M. state "never any kind" of eulogy at the funeral Mass.  Full stop.  Brief remarks, not eulogies, are permitted after Communion; Fr. Vogelpohl ended the practice, as is his right as a pastor, after it too was abused. 

    And he clearly indicates that what I have termed "remembrances" can be given at wakes and other such events.  Are you quibbling over that choice of word?

  • Guest

    There would seem to be no prohabition against giving ‘eulogy’ AFTER the mass.
    The priest stands up , walks out , and people stand up and say the things they want to say in rememberance of the dead.

    What is the problem with that?

  • Guest

    I regularly sing at funerals and this is a real sore spot for me. At my parish the “eulogy” is much abused. It has become so commonplace that mourners feel an obligation to present something. The speakers seldom mention anything about the person’s faith and it often degenerates into a stand up comic act. I read just the other day in our local paper how the non-Catholic mayor of a certain town was asked to do the “eulogy” for a local pastor that had died suddenly. Just what is going on?! There is not much leadership on this issue from the diocesan level. It’s hard for a local priest to stand alone. I give Father Dan a lot of credit.

  • Guest

    Oh, boy … you’ve touched on a real sore spot for me also (I’m an organist, slave2mary). Our priest seems to permit anything and everything at funerals. One featured a DVD of the deceased woman’s life, shown on a large screen set up in front of the altar — and don’t get me started on the eulogy. Once (and thank God only once) a clearly inebriated speaker sauntered to the lectern and proceeded to deilver an emotional, rambling, and at times profane eulogy, while the pastor just allowed it to proceed. I remember feeling terribly uncomfortable and embarrassed at this. I mean, if we really believe in the Real Presence — that Jesus is really and truly present on the altar — then exactly where do we get off behaving like this??? As slave2mary points out, the whole thing really does degenerate into a comic routine. We need to bring back the sense of the sacred, which IMO is the issue underlining this whole situation. We’ve gone from being almost afraid to breathe in church, to the point where “anything goes”. Sad, really.

  • Guest

    After a recent funeral, I see that eulogies during the mass need to be avoided. What happended in our case is that faults were reported…faults no one knew except those giving the 10+ minute “comments”. There were pro-life anecdotes, to be sure which encouraged us to persevere in our faith and struggles. There were a good amount of “minutes” given by one speaker about the beer cans, car, pretty women, which caused me to wonder “Couldn’t this be shared at the reception after the funeral, not in the church during mass?” The stories would have gotten out later to those unable to attend the reception. The image of the deceased mentioned entering the pearly gates “driving Betsy into Heaven” being preached from the cathedral pulpit was sickening when the Gospel had just previously been read at the very same sacred place beside which the Eucharist on the altar had been offered. It seems that just about anything goes with regards to the Holy mass these days. No wonder so many folks go out of their way to attend Latin mass communities. Why do folks and permissive clergy think that television is what should be their guide instead of church teaching?

  • Guest

    Having the eulogy / tributes, thank yous delivered just prior to the start of the funeral Mass or Service is the present practice in many parishes in our diocese. From my experience, the priest would also have a word with the family’s rep re time and what’s appropriate. However, given human nature there would always be the lengthy ones especially for very active members of parish, family or wider community. “Incline unto our aid O God. O Lord make haste to help us.”

  • Guest

    Here’s an idea — let’s bring back wakes! Then loved ones can share the poignant and the absurd, and even have a nip in the deal.

    At the Mass of Christian burial, there should be a brief summary in the program about what the liturgy is and is not.

    I’ll talk to my wife about putting this in our will.

  • Guest

    Mr. Leonardi …

    … not to quibble, but if you go back to the OCF, you’ll discover that the “never any eulogy” quote you refer to is listed in two places (both of which I cited): in the section entitled “The Word of God: Homily” (note #27, page 8 in the Catholic Book Publishing edition of 1989) and the section entitled “Liturgy of the Word” (note #141, page 74). The context of both is the homily which takes place during the Liturgy of the Word, not the Final Commendation which takes place after Holy Communion. The same is true of #382 in the new GIRM which you referred to in response to me; it reads: “At the Funeral Mass, there should, as a rule, be a short homily, but never a eulogy of any kind.”

    All three directives are aimed at the priest (or deacon, since only priests or deacons can deliver a homily), and they direct him not to replace the homily with a eulogy. And if you believe priests would never do this, you’ve never attended the funeral of a priest, in which the “homily” is routinely nothing but one long paean to the deceased’s love for his congregation.

    The Church explicitly allows for a “member of the family to speak in remembrance of the deceased before the final commendation begins” (rubric, #170, page 89). This is what people usually call a “eulogy.”

    Because the eulogy is so often abused,however, and because priests do not like to tell the family of the deceased that they can’t do what they clearly want to do, you have such sad occurances happening as those that the other responders to your article mentioned. And some priests, in order to make life easier on themselves, will simply say: “Sorry, no eulogy; the Church forbids it,” instead of the more gutsy: “Sorry, no euology; I forbid it.”

    The Church clearly does not forbid it; the Church clearly allows it. And I’ve heard some wonderful euologies by Catholics who are serious about their faith spoken in remembrance of the deceased who were also serious about their faith, and these were much more spiritually effective and moving than the priest’s homily because the priest hardly knew the deceased and their faith-life whereas the euologizers knew them intimately.

  • Guest

    I agree that wakes are a necessary time for grieving.

    Our diocese has regulations and guidelines for funerals and it encourages that funeral vigils are held the evening before the day of the funeral. The vigils are held either at the funeral home or, more often, at the church. It is a time for prayer led by a priest or deacon, eulogies by family and friends and visitation with the bereaved family. The priest also offers the opportunity for family and friends to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

    Recently a family member was granted permission by our priest for 10-min. eulogy before the funeral Mass. The speaker didn’t keep his word and the eulogy lasted 30-min. It took time away from the homily at Mass and it extended the time for the burial and the prepared luncheon that followed. The luncheon provides more time for vistation, eulogies, etc.

    –Vi

  • Guest

    First of all, I am another priest who has had problems with people’s comments at a funeral. Example: a mother with a son early in high school died of cancer. She was a school teacher, and a family member in his comments said “God needed her to care for children in heaven, because He knew how much she cared for children.” I stood up after that EXTREMELY faulty theology and had to correct it. Why? “God needed her…” more than her own son? I don’t think so. What is that son’s opinion of God going to be?

    The instructional notes are “praenotanda” – meaning both RUBRICS, and LAW. The instruction says “never a eulogy” whereas the quote from instruction No. 170 “may speak in remembrance” – “never…” “may…”

    If the priest, who is the primary “speaker” at a funeral, is “never” to eulogize, how “may” someone else be allowed to?

    Finally, one of the purposes of the Funeral Mass and the selections of Scripture the Church gives us for funerals focuses our attention on heaven – not on this world. Eulogies, in my experience, always tear down the vision and image of heaven the priest is called to draw people to and takes people’s eyes off eternity and puts them on this world and the death of each one of us. Heaven needs to be the focus, not memories of a past life.

  • Guest

    The Church explicitly allows for a "member of the family to speak in remembrance of the deceased before the final commendation begins" (rubric, #170, page 89). This is what people usually call a "eulogy."

    No, this what you call a eulogy.  Most people call a 'eulogy' the homily-replacement delivered by friends, family members, and, in some cases, priests.  A brief remembrance at the end of Mass is a different thing, and I think it would help the laity and all involved if we maintained the distinction.

    It is mystifying how one can turn the words "never a eulogy of any kind" into some sort of permission for the very thing prohibited.  And I think it is downright uncharitable of you to suggest that Fr. Vogelpohl and priests like him lack courage or "gutsy"-ness for simply following the rules and exercising their legitimate rights and responsibilities as pastors.

  • Guest

    I’ve read through the comments,here, and I just want to say thank you to Mr. Leonardi for his article.
    My family is not Catholic, and I presume that a Catholic funeral Mass will not be in their plans for me. However, I am fully determined to email this article to those who will make those choices after I’m gone with the clear stipulation that, if they should choose to have a Catholic funeral Mass for me, any and all eulogies should be limited to the Visitation the night before or the reception after the Mass. I can only hope that they have enough respect for me and for my faith-life to follow my wishes.

  • Guest

    Oh my, I too sang in a funeral choir for many years and estimate I’ve sung 150 funerals. Oh, the things we saw from the loft. The worst example was when our parish pastor (who championed family eulogies) gave his own customary homiletic eulogy. Unfortunately he did not know the deceased except for a few facts gleaned at the wake the evening before. With great solemnity he told us that “Fred” liked to sit. That was Fred’s favorite thing. And when he went to the cottage, that was his favourite type of sitting – he would settle himself in front of the picture window overlooking the lake and sit watching his grandchildren frolic in the water.

    It was a travesty. Imagine a man living to a great age and these were the words chosen to sum his life! This is part of the reason priests are not to eulogize at the time of the homily.

  • Guest

    To Father Vogelpohl: I salute you! It’s about time that priests start living up to the book that each and everyone is supposed to follow. A priest, after being ordained, is supposed to follow the rules and the teachings of the Catholic Church; that is, the Pope and the teachings in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. If most wonder why in this day and age that our religion is going down the drain, then look no further than right in our own back yard; I always said: “Most Catholics know nothing about their religion anymore and they do what they very well please.” Who’s fault is this? No one is teaching them anything anymore and on top of that, the priests don’t say anything neither. And in the end, it makes for all kinds of allowances being made in our churches. Most have no respect anymore for the house of God; we need priests that are going to finally put their foot down and not allow all the abominations that are going on in our churches. To give you an example of where we are at, I once questionned a 50 year old priest (one who should know better) about a certain aspect of the mass that he was not following correctly according to the rules of the Vatican: his reply was this: “The Vatican is just another diocese and we don’t have to listen to other dioceses..”. I thank God that I know my catechism and I follow the rulings of the Vatican because otherwise, I would have been duped into believing what he said.

  • Guest

    If fjindra is a priest, then he knows that by canon law (c767) no one but a priest or deacon is allowed to speak in the privileged place right after the Gospel. The canon also states that “among all the forms of preaching the homily is preeminent … and is reserved to a priest or to a deacon.” Since both OCF #27 and #141 direct that a homily be delivered at a funeral, and not be replaced by a euology, they are both necessarily addressing the only person who can preach a homily–namely a priest or a deacon. Context is vital here, all three directives (including the GIRM) are referring to the Liturgy of the Word and are directed towards priests and deacons. Thus, by law, no priest or deacon, at the time right after the Gospel, may replace a homily (which only a priest or deacon may deliver) with a eulogy.

    This does not prohibit “a family member from speaking in remembrance of the deceased before the final commendation begins.” Mr. Leonardi thinks that my calling these few words a “eulogy” is unique to me. It isn’t. It’s what words spoken about the deceased are commonly called–by priests, by the laity–in New York. In fact, it’s what Fr. V calls those words himself, unless he means by “enforc[ing] a ban on eulogies at Masses” that he is going to force himself not to deliver a eulogy when he’d really rather do so.

    I don’t think so. By Fr. V’s “enforcing a ban on eulogies” he means that he’s not going to allow anyone to speak after Holy Communion for all the good reasons everyone has alluded to.

    Fr. V is indeed free to do this (as fjindra recognizes) since the stipulation is indeed only “may speak in remembrance,” not “must speak….” But to make it sound as if the Church forbids this post Communion eulogizing by family members or friends is not to speak the truth, since the Church only forbids priests or deacons from eulogizing after the Gospel, and explicitly allows it to members of the faithful after Holy Communion–a practice Fr. V is no longer himself going to allow … as he is free to do so, and as indeed might be a welcome relief to his parishioners.

  • Guest

    But to make it sound as if the Church forbids this post Communion eulogizing by family members or friends is not to speak the truth.

    So we've gone from questioning Fr. Vogelpohl's courage to calling him a liar.  No one is making it "sound" this way but you; Fr. Vogelpohl was crystal-clear about what is and is not permitted by the rubrics, and what he himself is prohibiting as a matter of pastoral judgment.  Would that you were so clear, and truthful.

  • Guest

    Let me write in Fr. Vogelpohl’s defense. You can find the catechesis he provided to his parish at his parish website http://www.bscky.org. If you read it, you will find that he very openly acknowledged that the OCF permits a family member or friend to speak words of remembrance at the time of the final commendation. He definitely was “gutsy” and did not hide behind the apron of the Church. He was quite clear in saying it was his decision not to permit such words of remembrance at the time of the final commendation.

    He also goes on to explain how his parish had developed guidelines for such words of remembrance but that several years of experience showed that such guidelines were routinely ignored and the abuses continued. His catechesis also makes it clear that the elimination of the words of remembrance at the time of the final commendation was not a decision he made in a vacuum. He consulted with his Bishop, his bereavement committee, local funeral directors, and numerous other pastors. His catechesis was also generous in offering several other options for such words of remembrance: at the Vigil Service, at the reception following the funeral, in written form to be distributed to the assembly, etc.

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