Verboten! Secular songs at funerals

Perhaps you saw the various reports on the Archbishop of Melbourne, Dennis Hart, forbidding secular songs at funerals. No more “romantic ballads, pop or rock music, political songs, football club songs.” The funeral is a Mass of Christian Burial (also known as a Requiem Mass), not merely a “celebration of the life of the deceased.” The guidelines can be found here.

NCR’s Eugene Kennedy won’t have any of it. “The real problem may be that archbishops don’t have enough to do,” he sneers. “It may be that Hart just had a bad day. He sounds as if he were finally venting long pent up irritation…” Kennedy spots the real motive behind this plot. But of course: the Archbishop is turning back the clock, and wants black vestments and a congregation in passive silence as the priest says Mass by himself as if it’s a matter between him and God.

Except that none of this is found in the guidelines. It’s all from Kennedy’s imagination. His fears of the Bad Old Days are so strong, apparently, that he sees evidence of it where there is none.

Kennedy is a good psychologist. He has some good points, to be sure. The “secular” is good (think “secular priests”), “play” is an integral part of human life, indeed, sacred. Play and  contemplation go together. God is present also in secular love ballads and football songs. All very true. But that doesn’t mean that all these are appropriate for the liturgy. Lots of things in this world are really great and holy and sacred – having sex, for example – but that doesn’t mean they’re appropriate to do in the liturgy.

As I read it, Archbishop Hart is promoting the reformed Rite of Christian Burial and fostering a worthy celebration of the funeral Mass in accord with the nature and purpose of the reformed rites. He’s not out to be a killjoy. He’s out to promote music that fits the rite and celebrates the fullness of the Paschal Mystery. Note that he promotes active participation, singing of the important elements (eg. the Responsorial Psalm of the reformed lectionary), and sensitivity to all who are present, including non-Catholics.

Of course it’s a great media story whenever an Archbishops makes rules and tells people what they can’t do. The media are good at quoting the prohibitions – and leaving out all the uninteresting things like the Paschal Mystery and the Communion of the Saints. I suppose one could quibble with some of the Archbishop’s language, eg. that not all rock music is un-Christian. Maybe some of the language could be softened a bit. But I’m not sure this would do much good for those out to put spin on the story.

Eugene Kennedy is a wise commentator, and I read with great interest his weekly commentaries on human life, Christian life, and things Catholic. He has been an asute commentator on the abuse crisis. But this time, I think he dropped the ball. Maybe he should stay away from the topic of liturgy. Or maybe he should actually read the funeral guidelines from Melbourne before commenting on them.



  1. Thanks, Fr. Anthony. It does raise a whole host of questions. Not to redirect your post but the original announcement in Australia and the specific priest who replied raised for me the ongoing questions around:
    – enculturation (think Chinese Rites – fascinating exhibit currently going on in San Francisco on this)
    – how much does current culture get incorporated into our sacramental liturgies? Who decides? What is considered pastoral?
    – is there “wiggle” room to allow the “secular” or even pagan to be “christianized”?
    – not sure, but some commentors veered to the question of funeral rites that focus on the “passing of the soul” rather than the “life and goodness of the Christian pilgrim who has died” and saw in this announcement some type of liturgical “rollback”

    As usual, your balanced and careful attributions to Kennedy also touch on the whole issue of celebrating the complete life of a Christian – how, role of family/friends (ongoing issue of who/when someone gives a eulogy – have experienced good ones that use scriptural themes and have experienced terrible, embarrassing ones).

    Any way, thought the Australian bishop opened up many diverse questions.

  2. Maybe funeral circumstances are changing.

    We have declining numbers of weddings in church. Funeral Masses may also decline. There are going to be less and less priests around. People are not as likely now to take off work to go to a funeral during the day.

    Extended viewing hours seem to be declining. People are living longer; death often comes after a long and fulfilling life, when it seems very natural. When this occurs, often the children and grandchildren are the only ones left, a very small group at the funeral Mass.

    So maybe the emphasis should be that the funeral Mass is the parish’s farewell. Retired people should be encouraged to attend, and the Mass be well done by the parish for everyone (and be less of a family project and less tailored to the families needs.)

    On the other hand there is a place for a much more varied evening service at the funeral home the night before reflecting the family’s wishes, their creativity and the nature of the funeral. The parish should offer to help but ultimately it should be the family’s farewell.

    When my father died, I prepared a beautiful Mass booklet with readings, music, family pictures, etc. I used the same order of service (without EP) for the vigil. It was family only. I presided and explained the booklet; the priest attended and gave the final blessing. More family were able to attend, and the intimacy and open casket gave this service a deep sense of being our family farewell.

    1. I agree with much of what Jack says. A good time for those secular songs and remembrances is at the end of the Vigil or wake. In fact, encouraging this can be a way of letting people know that their wishes are not being ignored. They are then more likely to accept the Church’s desires concerning music during the liturgy.

    2. I once looked after music at a funeral where the family was desperate to have “O Danny Boy!”. The deceased was a former editor of a national Catholic newspaper – orthodox to his fingertips but with a great sense of things pastoral.

      I gently talked the family round but asked our trumpeter to follow the cortege to the graveside where she played this rather lovely melody solo (with me holding the music and an umbrella!). It was a rather moving occasion.

  3. I agree with Paul’s comment but that gets tricky when visitation happens in the church, which is becoming the norm in our area.

  4. Great to hear Bishops addressing more and more of these Funeral issues. I would hope the next thing to get the boot would be the family or friend Eulogy after Communion. Absolutely painful.

  5. For me this is an example of a much bigger pastoral dilemma with sacraments and ceremonies. It appeared to me that the 1998 revisions would have increased the number of alternative prayers, settings, etc. so that:
    – funerals – pastorally the family, friends, community of the deceased really impacts what happens at the liturgy including the wake. A few examples – deceased is not known by many; family is mixed religiously and the surviving spouse is non-catholic; death of a young person; suicide, older person (some parishes have a older choir who can sing at week day funerals and serve a meal afterwards…great ministry. As you can see, the situations are all ove the place…not sure one standard liturgy is the best pastoral approach
    – weddings……appreciate those who have to prepare couples esp. if they are basically non-participants. But what do you do in these instances – opportunity to educate, evangelize, etc. what about mixed marriages? what about marriages where one of both spouses have been married before, etc.

    I raise these because the liturgical and sacramental approaches need to allow a minister room to use alternatives so that the liturgy is not diminished by non-participation; misunderstanding; anger, etc.

    The one size fits all routine (IMHO) has done a lot of damage in some situations.

    1. Increasing the diversity of the liturgy is not the best way to meet the growing diversity of the environment. It magnifies individualism. Parish cultures need to be created.

      John Allen in his recent book and several NCR pieces has emphasized the growing demographic of seniors in our parishes as an asset rather than a liability.

      I see the challenge as making the parish a “retirement community” that is very senior friendly.

      A Senior Funeral choir, if done right, would give many seniors the opportunity to 1) go to some weekday Masses without a commitment to daily Mass, 2) meet other seniors with similar interests, 3) provide a service to the parish and families, and 4) develop a skill they can take pride in with a limited time investment.

      Some keys are VERY LIMITED REPERTORY, limited practices (3-6 a year), accepting average singers, getting large numbers so that choir members have the flexibility to not attend a funeral or practice. Needs to be seen as a parish project of seniors. Offer as an option; let it grow by word of mouth, a liturgical carrot rather than a stick.

      Culture traditionally was what people saw going on around them, not what religious and musical authorities claimed as the right way of doing things. Build a funeral culture (including wakes, and post internment meals) as part of building the parish “retirement” culture. Don’t try to have the Mass do it all.

  6. Funeral Liturgies are such a welcome time to support a grieving family, and to welcome home to church those who may have been away for whatever reason. As a parish musician, I have had those secular requests. I remember the sister of one of the deceased asking for the song “If You Leave Me Now” by the rock group Chicago. Now if she really knew the text of the song, when she asked, she probably would have never asked for it it in the first place. “if you leave me now, you take away the biggest part of me, ohhhh baby please don’t go, ohhhh moma I just got to have your lovin”…you get the picture! When I talked to her and found the text of the song on the internet to show her, she smiled in embarrassment, not realizing that the song was really a break up song between two lovers. We as pastoral musicians need to do our best to help those grieving select music that is worthy of their loved ones funeral liturgy. The funeral home or even at graveside maybe a more appropriate time for such requests, etc. And where does this idea of “Mass of Resurrection ” come from? I know of a local parish that uses this term to justify singing an Alleluia before the proclamation of the gospel in Lent….ugh!

  7. Knowing what funerals can be like first hand here in Australia, I can understand Archbishop Hart’s frustration. There are many cases of funerals celebrated not only with little regard for the liturgical laws, but with a limited understanding of what the Church is doing when it celebrates a funeral.

    Earlier in the comments mention was made of how some practices can be more effectively incorporated into the Funeral Vigil, which is true. Sadly in Australia, very little use is made of the Vigil, much to the detriment of our funeral rites here and how people experience them. It seems that, in Australian practice at least, the funeral has been expected to be more than it should and can be. We have an entire Order of Christian Funerals, but the pastoral reality is that the funeral itself is typically the only engagement people have with the rites in Australia. Even the rite of committal often only draws to it a small proportion of those who attend the funeral; we simply don’t have that sense that what is celebrated at the graveside is the completion of what we began in the church.

    Clearly there are ways to approach these issues, and people will respond as they will. In my diocese, the bishop has previously had morning tea sessions with funeral directors to form them in the Catholic funeral rites. These were well received and the directors appreciated being able to better support the parishes they work with and their customers.

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