“After the storm of a life lived in the heat of political controversy, there is a great calm. The storm of conflicting opinions centres on the Mrs Thatcher who became a symbolic figure – even an ‘ism’. Today the remains of the real Margaret Hilda Thatcher are here at her funeral service. Lying here, she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings.” (+Richard Chartres, Bishop of London)
I write neither to praise Mrs. Thatcher, nor to bury her–both have been done. And though she has been decried also, that is not my purpose either. Rather, this sentence, which began the funeral homily, got me to thinking about a common practice with which I have never been comfortable–the eulogy. There were no eulogies at Mrs. Thatcher’s funeral–did any of you notice that?–because, as the good bishop would say later in the same homily, what was happening there was not a memorial service, but a funeral. A funeral, in his estimation was to be about something different. Something that didn’t simply grate against, but was actually at cross-purposes with eulogizing the deceased.
I am not talking here about “bad” eulogies. Dear me, examples abound, but I’ll mention only two. How about eulogies that are a rehash of clichés? ones in which the speaker sounds as though s/he has simply cut-and-pasted the well-wishes of 15 Hallmark sympathy cards together on one page only to read them to us. I do not say this uncharitably–I least I hope I don’t. For such eulogies are invariably the result of someone so close to the deceased as to be dumbstruck with grief, who nevertheless wants or feels obligated to give expression to that grief, to the love for the person who has died, being unfairly or prematurely pushed into the job. It is a shame to put that person in a place where words should fail us, for that person must in that place resort to someone else’s saccharine sentiments to get through an impossibly difficult time. Far better, it seems to me, to let such a person be quiet, to be on the receiving end of words that are neither new nor hackneyed, contemporary or clichéd. Or how about the eulogy that is, really, a pretty good retirement roast? Why, by the time it’s over, we are so lost in happy half-invented memory that half the congregation has forgotten the deceased has, well, died. If it weren’t for the urn or coffin right up front. . . . We’ve all been on the receiving end of a bad eulogy. Some of us have even given them. No, I am talking about good eulogies–eulogies that remember accurately a life lived. Eulogies that do not manipulate or manufacture. Eulogies that invite all to consider our own mortality and the legacy that we will leave behind. Even these, do not belong at the funeral.
Eulogies do not belong at a funeral because eulogies are about the deceased and the funeral is, like all services of worship, about God. It is about bringing the experience of death within the common life of God’s people, and so reminding us that even here, in the most shattering of experiences, God is present. It is to remind us that the deceased really is deceased (not “gone home,” “not in heaven,” “not passed over,” but dead). And it is to remind us that the deceased, even as deceased, remains united to Christ. Immortality, if it exists at all, is to be found in that union and no where else. It is because of our common union with Christ that all of us, living and dead, remain members of the church, that body that transcends the boundaries of time and space, life and death. And so at the funeral, we approach God in song and prayer, we hear from God in Word and Sermon, and we receive from God in bread and wine. Throughout, the triune God is at the centre: the Father who would not give his creation over to death; the Son who through his death destroyed death and by rising again opened the way to life everlasting; the Spirit who so unites us to Christ in baptism and sustains us in the Eucharist such that even death cannot separate us. The funeral is not about me and my need to grieve. Nor is the funeral about the deceased and my need to remember him or her. It is about God, who has declared himself the enemy of death, and who has, by raising Jesus from the dead, robbed death of its sting and it is about my need to hear again this incredible Good News.
Is there a place where eulogies belong? Oh absolutely! I come from a Northern Irish heritage which made much of “the wake.” Before the funeral, for two or three evenings, families and friends would gather in the funeral home, or family home, to remember the dead. To give good words (eu-logoi) about the deceased to each other. To remember. To grieve. To comfort. Another possibility is a memorial service which might follow some time after the funeral, after family and friends have grieved together and can honestly move from grief to celebration for life that God had given. There should be space to do all those things that do indeed need doing, including those things that only a good eulogy can do, but which cannot and ought not to be done in 1 hour so at the funeral service.
I don’t know if my family will wake me before or celebrate me after. I hope they do one or the other. Who doesn’t want to be remembered? But it is my express wish that my funeral be like Mrs. Thatcher’s–a funeral.
Eulogies–before. After. Yes please.