I saw a story the other day that took me aback a bit. Father Joseph Anthony Toal is the Roman Catholic Bishop of Motherwell and he found himself all over the papers when an instruction he’d sent to his clergy was leaked to a journalist. He even made the Daily Telegraph.
He told his priests to refuse requests from family and friends to speak during the mass, saying that the church wasn’t the appropriate location for eulogies and suggested they may be more suitable at the funeral reception afterwards.
I thought I ought to offer another perspective, so I wrote this short article for The Scotsman. You can read it on their site, but here’s what I said if you don’t want to click this link.
As a recovering Catholic, my heart goes out to Bishop Toal: his extraordinary directive that family members should be banned from delivering eulogies and personalised poems at funerals is clearly bonkers, and it’s only a news story because so obviously it flies in the face of reality – Catholic reality.
I’ve delivered eulogies at two Catholic ceremonies in recent years, and on both occasions, I found the incumbent priests to be unfailingly supportive and helpful. And while the bishop says “we need to accept that it is what the Church offers us that counts most of all, rather than our own words”, times have long since changed and my Catholic colleagues at the University of Edinburgh Chaplaincy Centre, assure me that ‘user generated content’ is welcomed in all of their ceremonies, even weddings. It’s interesting that the church’s official guidance is honoured more in the breach than the observance, but if Catholicism is to survive as even a minority faith, it has to bend with the prevailing wind.
As a humanist celebrant, my approach is entirely opposite to that of the bishop. As I see it, my role is to speak for the family when they feel unable to speak themselves and while I do most of the talking most of the time, I’m delighted to say that with every passing year, I’ve seen more and more friends and family members who’ve wanted to speak themselves – who could do it better?
As it happens, I have conducted two funerals today. In the first, no fewer than four people joined me in paying tribute to Joyce’s life: in the second, Mark’s uncle Alex delivered a personal tribute while his cousin Chloe sang the REM song, Everybody Hurts. As you might guess, it was incredibly moving.
Speaking at a funeral is not an ordeal, as the bishop says: it’s a privilege, and it can be done by people of all ages. There is no greater honour you can pay your mum or your granny than getting up and reading a poem or telling a story about her life, and – terrifying as it may seem – it’s not as hard as you may think. All you need to do is take your words into the bathroom, lock the door, and read them to yourself again and again until you stop crying. I saw six people do this today and every one of them did it brilliantly, to honour the person they loved.
Never mind the bishop: when it’s your turn to speak, you know what to do.