Teaching Mourners the Language of Witness: How to Transform the Funeral Eulogy

Teaching Mourners the Language of Witness: How to Transform the Funeral Eulogy

As a liturgist, I believe it when the Order of Christian Funerals (OCF) says eulogies are not allowed. But when I die, I plan to have lots of stories told about me at my funeral.

When it comes to eulogies, the complaints we often hear about inflexible liturgists or uninformed family members are a bit unfair to both liturgists and mourners. The fact is the church has a rich treasure in its funeral rites, and, in general, we pastoral and liturgical leaders have not made enough good use of them to change the cultural expectations of what most people imagine a Catholic funeral looks like.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), fewer people in the United States are turning to the church to mark significant life events, such as birth or marriage. Yet, the number of Catholic funerals remains steady. Even in a post-Christian world, people trying to make sense of the mystery of death still desire the church’s rites. Values often clash, however, in the preparation of those rites. It’s human nature to want to remember the life of our loved one, to praise the good they have done and thank them for the good they leave behind. The church wants to do the same. The difference is that our rites call us to do this through the vernacular of Christ’s paschal mystery. Our responsibility then to those who grieve is to help them translate their human desire into the language of divine hope. That language is liturgical.

So instead of telling people what they can’t say, let’s help them imagine what they could say if we taught them the grammar of our funeral rites.

      Use this free worksheet to help mourners learn the ritual language of witness, which will prepare them to share powerful words of remembrance at the Catholic funeral liturgies for their loved one.

Free Download: “WORKSHEET TO HELP PREPARE WORDS OF REMEMBRANCE”

A three-part love story

First, we need to give mourners the entire vocabulary of the rites. That means breaking the myth that a Catholic funeral is merely a rosary and a Mass with some prayers at the grave. What the Order of Christian Funerals provides is much richer. It is more like a three-part love story accompanying a Christian’s final journey home. (Note that a catechumen who dies also has the right to these liturgies.)

First, at the Vigil for the Deceased, “the Christian community keeps watch with the family in prayer to the God of mercy and finds strength in Christ’s presence” (OCF 56). Despite assumptions, the vigil is not a rosary. It is a Liturgy of the Word or Morning or Evening Prayer for the Dead. Nothing in the rites prevents those who desire it to incorporate the rosary. But the gift we can give to those who grieve is the rite’s clear expression that our hope is squarely on Christ. The rosary can certainly enhance but it cannot replace the vigil.

The second part of this love story is the Funeral Liturgy. This is the most familiar and best attended of the three liturgies. It’s also the one parishes put most liturgical and pastoral resources toward. Thus, it often bears the burden of trying to incorporate everything the family and the parish staff desire. If we make better use of all the liturgies in the Order of Christian Funerals, including the related rites and prayers, we can relieve this unreasonable burden and better attend to the needs of those who mourn.

Last is the Rite of Committal. It is the “final act of the community of faith in caring for the body of its deceased member” (OCF 204).

In each of these principle moments, the church invites the mourners to speak of the life of their beloved. In the Vigil for the Deceased (OCF 80, 96, 382, 394) and in the Funeral Liturgy (OCF 170, 197), the rubrics say, “A member or a friend of the family may speak in remembrance of the deceased.” And throughout the entire Order of Christian Funerals, we are called to adapt the rites, including the Rite of Committal. So imagine if we gave space for words of remembrance at all these formal rituals and time for storytelling at all the informal gatherings. How much clearer would the ritual language be for those who mourn!

A homily is not a eulogy

Where a eulogy is explicitly prohibited is in the homily: “A brief homily based on the readings is always given after the gospel reading at the funeral liturgy and may also be given after the readings of the vigil service; but there is never to be a eulogy” (OCF 27). The homily’s purpose is to praise God; a eulogy’s purpose is to praise a person. It’s a subtle but important difference. The homily helps those who hear it give praise to God the Father for the gift of Christ within the context of the circumstances of the gathering. The homilist at a funeral might indeed praise the person who has died and recall their good deeds. But that praise must always lead the assembly toward praising God who, through the love of Christ poured into our hearts by the Spirit, is the source of everything that is good.

The language of testimony

What about the “words of remembrance”? Could that be the place for a eulogy? Here is our opportunity to help mourners who desire to give a fitting tribute to their loved one but might not know how to do that in the language of the paschal mystery. With some basic tools, we can help them avoid lengthy biographies or embarrassing narratives and teach them how to make their words of remembrance profound testimonies of faith.

One place we can learn from is the Rite of Election, which marks the beginning of a catechumen’s final preparation for baptism. During this rite (or in the optional Rite of Sending), godparents and other members of the assembly give testimony to the readiness of their catechumens to live the duties of the baptismal priesthood. The church asks about their deeds and actions, their attitudes and intentions, and the godparents give witness, often speaking freely in their own words, about what they have seen in the lives of their catechumens.

Without good preparation and direction, this witness can fall into eulogy-speak. But here is the secret that helps not only godparents but also mourners give fitting testimony. Testimony begins with God’s action and leads toward God’s praise. Therefore, any ritual testimony given by a godparent or liturgical words of remembrance spoken of the dead should begin this way:

“I saw God/Christ/the Holy Spirit acting in [name]’s life
when [name] did this…”
or “said this…”
or “believed this…”

This simple liturgical syntax is a reminder to both speaker and hearer that what is about to be said is about God acting through the life of our loved one.

More tools, less rules

Now imagine if, as part of our pastoral care and preparation for the funeral rites, we gave families and friends these questions to reflect on:

  • Where did I see God in my loved one’s life, in their actions, in their words or attitudes? Name some specific moments.
  • How did Christ, or the Gospel stories, or belief in Christ strengthen my loved one’s faith, especially in challenging times or moments of doubt? Give an example.
  • What did I see in my loved one’s life that was life-giving, healing, joyful, prophetic, or courageous on behalf of others? (These are signs of the Holy Spirit at work.)

Imagine if pastoral ministers, liturgists, and music directors asked these questions and listened every time they met with the family. Imagine if families wrote down their responses and used them to craft the words of remembrance for the funeral liturgy. Imagine if questions like these were given to families and friends at the various rites to open the floor for sharing. Their responses can strengthen a homilist’s words by providing a clearer image of the deceased’s faith life and concrete examples that will connect to mourners. By doing this, we might also alleviate the desire for multiple speakers at the funeral liturgy.

Once you’ve helped the family and friends reflect on these questions, help them discern who should speak on their behalf. It might not be the one who is closest to the deceased but is one they believe can speak in the language of faith as a witness to God’s action. Emphasize that this is a ritual moment and requires a person with some ritual sensitivity. With the responses to the reflection questions in hand, this person already has the outline of a profound and succinct accounting of the person’s life of faith.

After imagining all this, it can still be tempting to just keep doing what we’ve always done. It’s more convenient to just tell families the liturgical rules for what they can and can’t say at the funeral of their loved one. But death is never convenient. It calls us beyond comfortable rules to encounter Christ who has been at work in the lives of the dead marked with the sign of faith. The gift we can give to those who mourn is to teach them how to recognize, understand, and speak God’s ritual language of love stronger than death.

      Share this worksheet with your bereavement ministers, music ministers, and all who help mourners prepare the funeral liturgies for their loved one.

Free Download: “WORKSHEET TO HELP PREPARE WORDS OF REMEMBRANCE”


This article originally appeared in “GIA Quarterly,” Volume 31, Number 4. Reprinted with permission. Grateful thanks to Joanne DiGennaro and the Diocese of Camden for sharing their worksheet on reflections for words of remembrance.
Image: Aatik Tasneem, unsplash, CC0

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