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Kathy Sheridan: Treatment at family funeral showed how Catholic Church just keeps scoring own goals

A frustrated attempt to deliver a eulogy at a funeral underlines the hidebound rules which only drive people away

The energy emanating from the Athlone assembly of the Catholic faithful seemed hopeful — but for whom? When the lay membership of any church feels obliged to prioritise compassion and inclusivity in the demands of its hierarchy and then expresses surprised gratitude for being heard, the bar seems comically low.

For those wobbling on the margins, neither in nor quite out, it’s the silly own goals that come to mind.

Ten years ago, I was assigned to cover the funeral of Barney McKenna, the last of the original Dubliners ballad group.

McKenna was 72 and the congregation crammed into St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Trim, Co Meath, led by McKenna’s siblings and partner along with President Michael D Higgins, reflected the years totted up by that generation.

Most would have gone home or for a bracing beverage of some kind after the Mass but since the Meath diocese forbids eulogies inside the church, they felt bound to walk or limp to the cemetery instead to hear McKenna’s old brother-in-arms, John Sheahan (72) eulogise his gentle-natured friend.

It was a sorry spectacle. While the 72-year-old president took shelter from the chilly April rain under the undertaker’s gazebo, other older people had to pick their way through sodden clay and around gravestones to seek a safe footing near Sheahan as he struggled to make himself heard in the drizzle.

McKenna once explained to him, said Sheahan, that “holding a plectrum is like holding a fledgling bird. If you squeeze it too hard, you’ll choke it, and if you hold it too gently, it will fly away, so it’s somewhere in between”.

It’s fair to say that our deceased relative would have found the entire scene hilarious. But observers of my generation were not amused

Surveying the damp and shivering old mourners forced by diocesan policy to leave the shelter of the people’s church to hear a moving and respectful eulogy, it seemed that McKenna’s analogy could as easily have been applied to the church.

In what universe of compassion and inclusivity could that scene have made sense? My report described the mood among mourners as “fractious”.

Some weeks ago, that memory roared back to life — but too late sadly — when I arrived, eulogy in hand, at a different church in the same diocese, for the funeral of a family member. Having listened in the preceding days to hundreds of moving testaments of his many remarkably discreet and surprising kindnesses, it seemed appropriate that some should be included in a short appreciation by a relative in the church.

The officiating priest had put out the word that he wanted to talk to me. He was standing beside the hearse where the coffin lay waiting to be carried into the church. Without a perfunctory “sorry for your loss” he declared that no eulogies were permitted in this diocese, asked to see the speech anyway, flicked officiously through the pages, pronounced it to be indeed a eulogy — ie bad — but agreed (with himself) that he would read parts of it, described as “remarks” from the family, before mass began. All the while a large crowd of mourners eyed us and the coffin in disbelief. Then he went away with my pages.

It’s fair to say that our deceased relative would have found the entire scene hilarious. But observers of my generation were not amused. More pertinently for the church, the large groups of protective young people around us were stunned.

The wise officiants — and there are some — seek a middle path in what they know are simultaneously the worst days of a family’s life and the church’s best

Clearly the debate is more nuanced than a flat ban or facilitating a free for all. Paragraph 382 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal: “At the funeral Mass there should, as a rule, be a short homily, but never a eulogy of any kind”. The bishop of Meath has endorsed that, rigorously.

He must feel vindicated when he hears of eulogies and altar offerings being egregiously abused elsewhere, the most recent being when the deceased was described as a “f**king legend”, and the offerings included a screwdriver, a torch and a banner with the words, You know the score, get on the floor, don’t be funny, show me the money.”

Yet for the majority of mourners muddling through a haze of shock and grief, eulogies represent something complementary to the death and resurrection liturgy, a comfortingly familiar relative or friend with relatable things to say in a solemn setting about a dear one’s footprint on earth.

Funeral negotiations are delicate by definition. The bereaved are exhausted and nerves are fraught. The wise officiants — and there are some — seek a middle path in what they know are simultaneously the worst days of a family’s life and the church’s best — potentially; a rare opportunity to demonstrate that longed-for compassion and inclusivity to strangers entering its doors.

A model for grown-up discussion was articulated some years ago by Fr Joe Mullan, a Dublin diocesan priest, after a famously lively funeral. “To forbid someone speaking seems unnecessary to me, harsh even; why not allow one of the community to speak about the deceased and the way in which their life was God’s gift to the world. The length of the address, the choice of person to deliver it and the general tone can all be discussed often with some pretty firm guidelines laid down.”

Why poke a terminally weary faithful in the first place? What’s the use of hidebound rules if there is no one left to abide by them?