Viewpoint: Are Eulogies Allowed at Funeral Masses?

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

The touchiest aspects of funeral planning are music and eulogies. In my experience,  at least half of the time one or more family members or friends want to give a eulogy after the Prayer after Communion of the Funeral Mass.

The funeral planning meeting is no place to argue liturgical principles, lay down the law, and provide an outright refusal of the request for someone to give a eulogy at Mass. This creates bad feelings that can ripple through the family for years. But it can be an occasion to explain as gently as possible the principles involved and come to a solution which can keep everyone relatively happy.

One can explain the difference between a homily and a eulogy. The homily, given after the Gospel by the priest or deacon, is an interpretation of the person’s life by reference to the suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ.

First of all, the practice of eulogies at Catholic funerals is officially discouraged.  In the General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals, we are told that a homily is to be given, “but there is never to be a eulogy” (no.27). By a eulogy is meant an elongated narration of the human achievements and qualities of the deceased person. Certainly, homilies have to have a personal quality and the homilist has to connect the readings to the life and death of the deceased.   The primary emphasis is always, however on the readings and the symbols of the funeral rite-and most of all on the Cross and resurrection of Christ.

There is certainly a place for the whole genre of presentations that fall under the heading of a eulogy, and this is outside the Funeral Mass, notably at the end of the funeral vigil.  The church prescribes that before the end of the vigil, “a member or a friend of the family may speak in remembrance of the deceased” (no.80). Also when the vigil is completed, there is, in my opinion, a place for additional talks.  Another obvious place for eulogies about the deceased is at the luncheon that generally follows the funeral.

When I meet with families to prepare the funeral, and the question of talks by family members or friends come up, I always try to steer them toward the vigil.  This often works.  If they persist in saying something at the Funeral Mass, then I ask that only one person speak, that the talk be kept to five minutes or less, and that the content be reverent and appropriate (no jokes, no narration of unseemly episodes in the person’s life, etc).  This is sometimes a tricky negotiation; the last thing a pastor wants to do is upset the family on the occasion of a funeral.

No diocese in the U.S. that I know of has banned eulogies at the end of Funeral Masses, but I am aware that some in Ireland and Australia have.  As things presently stand in the U.S., judgment seems to be left to the pastor.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.

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25 comments

  1. Eulogies can simply add to the tension and trauma that funerals inevitably involve. One priest told me of a eulogy in which the speaker praised the deceased’s generosity in adopting his two sons when they had been abandoned by their natural parents. The only trouble was that he had never got round to telling his sons about this. Another priest told me that, at the funeral of a university student who had taken his own life, a young woman got up to speak and told of her regret that the deceased had refused to sleep with her because he was gay. In this case, the deceased had not told his parents about his sexual orientation. I have also heard of an instance in which the eulogy was used in order to laud the deceased’s commitment to his Masonic Lodge.

    I also think that people feel under pressure to speak at a time when they are at their most vulnerable and fragile, often because they have seen it done in films or on television, or because they think its the ‘done thing’. When I explain that they don’t have to speak at the Requiem Mass, and that the best place for eulogies is the relatively relaxed context of the vigil, the burial, the crematorium, or the wake, people are usually relieved. There is great wisdom in letting the signs and symbols of the liturgy do their work, a fact which is often appreciated most by those who do not practise their faith, or (more often) the faith of their deceased parents or relatives.

  2. I am not sure a pastor has the discretion to permit a eulogy at the actual funeral Mass. The new Ordo is quite clear on this point: “there is never to be a eulogy.” That isn’t a discouragement of the practice…it’s a prohibition.

    One problem here is that if one pastor permits what isn’t permissible, it becomes harder for other pastors to respect the clear prescription of the liturgy on this point.

    1. I rather think the proscription against eulogies is directed to the priest whose homily should focus on the paschal mystery—albeit with sensitive tie ins to the deceased. There should be no outright ban on a family member giving a short remembrance and an expression of gratitude to mourners. I do agree that such remembrances are more suited to the vigil, but not all choose to have a vigil. I would say that a high handed attitude,on the part of the priest will do more damage than a questionable eulogy.

  3. Here in Australia the proliferation of TV screens in churches has resulted in not just the eulogy but an obligatory slide show replete with background music. A tremendous amount of labour goes into the confection of these ‘displays’ and before hand there is a lot of fussing with electronic appliances. More often than not the result is tiny pictures and tinny music that can neither be seen nor heard by the majority of the congregation…all because some one saw it being done somewhere else.
    We also have the occasional state funeral – usually for a Politician or some other highly notable individual and these seem to require a series of eulogies…often televised on the evening news bulletin.

  4. Fr Jim Fields penned this piece about eulogies a few months before he died:

    http://www.uscatholic.org/eulogies

    One subtle pastoral point that may be easily overlooked: people can feel unwelcome pressure to offer a eulogy at Mass because it is perceived as expected, that it would be perceived as a slight (or worse) *not* to go through it it. I can think of people who have been nauseated by this, and it’s not a kindness to permit it to become an expectation.

    For both of my parents, as they were in their 90s when they died and had outlived all their siblings and peers, I think the parish staff was surprised when our family’s position on roles in the liturgy was: thank you kindly, but no, we are so few in number*, and we just wish to be ministered to.

  5. This is a very narrow viewpoint. Not sure any one policy can cover the multitude of differences in funerals, families, etc.
    Some examples – many rural parishes continue an old tradition in which the vigil is praying the rosary – nothing more; nothing less. Have tried to do eulogies but this is counter to tradition/culture
    Have experienced very public figures or key personalities in parishes who have died and in which a good eulogy only intensified the funeral eucharist – why jump to an assumption that all eulogies are bad.
    In the history of liturgy, cultures, local practices have influenced and, in some cases, improved the church’s liturgy…..so to in this area.
    Why not work with folks; provide good eulogy examples; incorporate what is best rather than an all or nothing approach.
    Just saying

  6. I’m a Lutheran Pastor, so please hear my comments through that filter. I do not permit eulogies during the funeral Mass, though they are permitted after the Liturgy when I have exited to the sacristy.

    When my father died, as a Roman Catholic, the parish priest very graciously offered that I preach the homily, which I humbly accepted. He found it to be most orthodox in every way.

    Ten years later my brother died, also a Roman Catholic, who had received the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Anointing with Viaticum from the parish priest of our youth. When I requested to participate in the funeral in some role, I was referred to the Chancery where there were “new guidelines” in place now that indicated that I was now not allowed to be anywhere near the altar near the Mass, I could read the OT and Epistle lessons from the lectern, and if I chose, I could give a “short eulogy” from the floor level at a lectern placed there. I could vest if I chose to. I should sit in the congregation, not in the chancel.

    I elected not to vest, but was dressed in clerical collar and black suit. I gave my “eulogy”, which was the sermon I would have preached if given the chance…it was about 7 minutes long, as I knew the Roman Catholic practice there…on Romans 6. I then returned to my pew and the Mass went on. Of course, the Lutheran family members did not commune, which was expected and understood.

    I took the course “Ecumenical Theology from a Roman Catholic Perspective” at the Centro Pro Unione in Rome in 2003. What I was taught there was commensurate with my experience with my father.

    When did the practice change regarding visiting clergy who are family members or connected pastorally? I have given the homily at the invitation of the parish priest for funerals where I knew the deceased and he didn’t. I accepted that as beyond the norm, and the parish priest was more relieved than I was thankful. I will discreetly refrain from sharing other details of my ecumenical involvement to protect the innocent….

    1. Dave, contrary to what you may have experienced, it has always been the norm (and since Vatican II, part of the General Instructions) that preaching at any mass is reserved for ordained Catholic clergy (with extremely limited exceptions), and that a church sanctuary is reserved for those directly involved in the celebration of the mass (priest, deacon, readers, servers, etc.). Those “new guidelines” you speak of weren’t new, they always existed but for whatever reason were ignored at your father’s funeral. These instructions, along with many others, have too often been treated as “General Suggestions” by some priests and lay leaders who should know better, and while it may seem pastoral on the surface, only creates great confusion (sometimes irreparable) among unsuspecting laity and ecumenical brethren such as yourself. It shouldn’t have happened and I am sorry you were a victim of this, especially at such an emotionally challenging time as a Mass of Christian Burial.

    2. Pastor Dave,

      You present an interesting comparison in ecumenical treatment, from warm to cold, and while Patrick is correct, his comments do not reflect the true nature of the situation and that is this; each Roman pastor is essentially a divine right monarch within the confines of his fiefdom (parish). Sometimes, you catch a benign monarch, and sometimes you do not. Those are the facts of life.

      I have experiences such as yours as a pastor of a parish within the International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church (a poorly named, seldom understood, schematic Catholic Church). My experiences run from warm, right on down the gamut, and I always try not to let it bother me. Generally, the older guys are far warmer while the newly ordained, well, let’s just say that the conservative training is bearing fruit in empty churches. But, that is a topic for another time. In short, 10 situations will give you slightly different flavors of warmth.

      On the topic at hand, a short Eulogy in addition to a homily does not bother me and no I have never asked for a copy of it in advance and while things have been said that I would not have said, nothing has been too over the top. Music selection is a different topic of course.

      1. “each Roman pastor is essentially a divine right monarch within the confines of his fiefdom (parish).”

        Actually they’re not. Pastors in the Catholic Church are much closer to the captain of a police precinct than an all-powerful monarch (that would be the Pope). They have no legislative power, no juridical authority, and they aren’t empowered to make executive decisions that run contrary to official church instructions and teachings. There is nothing pastoral or benign about exercising authority that is not legitimately yours. If anything, it breeds confusion, distrust, and dissidence that leaves future pastors with the sometimes impossible task of cleaning up the mess. Part of being Catholic is faithfully submitting to legitimate actors of authority, whether it’s our parents, our pastor, our religious superior, our bishop, or in the case of the Pope, God Himself.

      2. Roger, I don’t quite get what you’re referring to, but through circumstances that are hard to explain here, I’ve had the privilege of being intimately involved in about 10 different Catholic worship communities (in two dioceses) in as many years. Granted, I’ve only been a catchiest and liturgical assistant and have never led a community like you have. That said, the ones that I’ve seen do well are the ones that embrace their Catholic identity (all strings attached) and are able to effectively communicate it to their congregations. Pastoral sensitively and fidelity to Church teaching and authority are not inherently contradictory ideals. Good pastors can do both, and Pope Francis regularly promotes these as essential to pastoral leadership.

  7. Some years ago I heard an interview with a Canadian bishop (now retired) in which the subject of funerals came up. The bishop made two important points. First, a Catholic funeral is not a ‘celebration of the life’ of the deceased. Second, since we are all equal in death, there must be no appearance of special treatment for wealthy or prominent people. On eulogies, the bishop observed, as does Fr Duncan above, that highly inappropriate things are sometimes said. He recalled one funeral at which the deceased was given a eulogy that stopped just short of canonization. In fact, the man was known to be an alcoholic and a wife-beater.

  8. Some time ago, our Bishop issued guidelines for funerals. He recommended that words on behalf of the deceased should be spoken right at the beginning of the Requiem Mass. This is contrary to the rules for funerals agreed by our Bishops’ Conference.

    If we follow this line, it reinforces the notion that funerals are about the deceased in the first place. Especially at the requiem Mass, they are about Christ first of all, surely.

    I point out to people that first, the Church does not encourage long speeches about the deceased. But I think we must be open to some words being said. As a rule of thumb I have asked that: do they think family members are the best people to do this ? They should not take longer than five minutes at the most (anything more is appropriate at the gathering afterwards!), and of course, I ask to see what is being said in advance, to ensure that nothing contrary to the teaching of the Church is being alleged, nor anything inappropriate to the setting, nor (as sometimes happens) anything slanderous to anyone.

    It is a bit of a minefiled.

    The rubrics allow for such words after the Postcommunion oration and before the Final Commendation and Farewell rites. That’s by far the best place.

    AG

    1. I’m afraid I disagree with my friend Alan Griffiths on this point.

      The most “successful” funerals I have attended during the past decade are precisely those where words of remembrance (a better term than eulogy) by friends or family are spoken at the beginning of the service, after the opening greeting. This has the triple advantage of (1) setting the “context” of the deceased in people’s minds early on, leaving them then free to focus on the readings, (2) helping people who are not used to being in church engage with the celebration and settle down, and (3) getting the words of remembrance out of the way so that both priest and people are freed from worry about what Uncle Fred (or whoever) might say later on. Any problems in these early words can easily be redeemed in the priest’s homily after the readings.

      I find it helpful to remind people that the words of remembrance are not in the nature of a tribute but simply an abbreviated “résumé” of the deceased person’s life. Also useful is to suggest that a simple sheet outlining the deceased person’s life can be prepared to insert in the order of service, so that the person delivering the words of remembrance does not actually have to say too much beyond thanking attenders for their presence.

      1. I would disagree with you.

        The Order of Christian Funerals allows for “words of remembrance” by a member of the family or friend before the final commendation. (OCF, 197).

        Disrupting the opening rites with a possible 20 minute eulogy(a term perpetuated by pastors and priests)seems inappropriate.

      2. I wasn’t talking about what OCF says, but about what I have experienced to work well pastorally.

        We frequently don’t do exactly what documents say. For example, RCIA says the Rite of Election is held within a Mass on the 1st Sunday of Lent. I don’t know of any diocese that still has Mass — pastoral experience has shown that dismissing a large part of the assembly would be a nonsense, and so would not dismissing them — and many hold it on the day before (Saturday) or another day around that time.

        As for a 20-minute eulogy, I would think it was clear from my other comments that fewer words are preferable.

  9. Monsignor Mannion:

    If more of the faithful understood what a Catholic funeral was, and was not, you (and so many parish priests) wouldn’t have to worry about “bad feelings that can ripple through the family for years.” Neither of my parents had a eulogy. We didn’t need a pastor to “argue liturgical principles, lay down the law,” and so on. We wouldn’t have allowed it, and we knew our parents wouldn’t have either.

  10. In these parts the majority of people who attend catholic funerals are unchurched.
    The expectation is that their will be a eulogy and that the grief of the relatives will be acknowledged.
    When it doesn’t happen it causes offence and upset since it is seen as disrespectful to both the deceased and to the grieving family. It is a time when theological and liturgical excuses for perceived snubs will really not cut the mustard. The danger is that the unchurched will go from a rare contact with the church with a nasty aftertaste, when it could instead have been a positive experience more likely to attract people to the church than repel them.
    Our practice is that the eulogy happens after the gospel and leads straight into the homily. Happily our priests are skilled at taking up threads from the eulogy and weaving them into a presentation of our Christian beliefs about death and the hereafter.
    This is undoubtedly wrong in terms of rubrics, but possible right in terms of how you treat mourners.

    1. Alan, what you write appears to be very pastoral and will without a doubt assist in the grieving process of the family while assisting in adding details to the homily.

      In addition to the question of a Eulogy, there is another warm moment in the liturgy just before Communion championed by many pastors in my parts, when just having received Communion himself, the following statement is said….

      “Only Roman Catholics in good standing in the church who are properly disposed should approach at this time to receive Holy Communion”

      This always warms the family’s collective heart as half the congregation sit down wondering if they are properly disposed and simply presuming that the priest could tell the difference and so try to avoid the embarrassment. When Mass is over, the committal complete, I assure you that it is this statement which will be the topic of conversation in the car and later on, always beginning with “You won’t believe this, but this is what was said at Aunt Mary’s funeral…….”

      “That they all may be one”

      1. Actually that is a rather courteous statement stating the sorry facts.

        I remember attending a service at a local Russian Church. Once a year members of the local Greek churches came as a fraternal gesture. The Greeks have a different view of what is a proper preparation for holy Communion from the Russians.

        As the members of the other churches came forward to receive the Russian priest shouted: Back you Greeks! It is not our custom to receive holy communion without fasting from last night and reciting the proper prayers.

        What would have Aunt Mary’s relatives thought of that!

  11. I have mixed feelings about this. I understand the official reasons for the ban and understand that things can get out of hand, but it seems to me that more often than not the eulogy by a family member can be a heart warming moment.

    Several years ago my 92 year old uncle passed away. We scheduled the funeral at the parish where he had been baptized and where he attended Mass throughout his life. (He stopped attending Mass there at the age of 80 when I took him to live with me.) The parish is run by a religious order. When I requested an opportunity to eulogize my uncle I was told by one of the friars that eulogies were not permitted at the Mass. The presiding priest never met my uncle and made no effort to learn about him. He preached a canned homily that referenced the suffering of the widow and children. (My uncle never married and had no children of his own.) It was not a very comforting liturgy as it seemed very impersonal.

    To make matters worse, a few years later I attended a Funeral Mass at the parish for one of the friars and participated in a wonderful funeral liturgy where the homily included personal antidotes about the deceased. Of course before Mass concluded one of the friars eulogized the deceased.

  12. A few things go through my head when I read the article and the comments.

    1. There seems to be a given that the priest knows the deceased. Not always the case by a long shot. I have assisted at a funeral where the presider mispronounced the name the whole time and if the Church cannot provide a pastoral funeral presider then let a lay person step in appropriately.

    2. At the moment of a funeral, I have seen it as a moment for healing. I agree that when a eulogist is bad, has poor comedic presence, and feels that he/she is bigger than the ceremony itself there will be trouble. And everyone feels held hostage. Set down justified expectations and never permit “just a couple of emails from friends who couldn’t make it.”

    3. There is hope that the sometimes conflicting realities of “this is about the Church’s prayer” and “this is about the deceased person’s faith and family” can be reconciled. A well done funeral has the ability to heal on so many levels. But everyone knows that if they’ve gone to a funeral.

    Thanks Karl LS for the link.

  13. One of the best homilies/eulogies I ever heard was written by the deceased and read by one of his friends. It was funny, prayerful and theologically powerful. Few people knew he had that last part in him. But not every homily/eulogy can be exceptional. After attending a few funerals presided over by the same priest, I can usually recite what he is going to say along with him. It may not be fresh, but look at the marching orders he is given for it.

    We err either on the side of charity or on the side of good order except for the times our tendency to err matches the need of the deceased’s family and friends. And who can predict when that will be?

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