The touchiest aspects of funeral planning are music and eulogies. In my experience, at least half of the time one or more family members or friends wants to give a eulogy after the Prayer after Communion of the funeral Mass.
The funeral planning meeting is no place to argue liturgical principles, lay down the law, and provide an outright refusal of the request for someone to give a eulogy at Mass. This creates bad feelings that can ripple through the family for years. But it can be an occasion to explain as gently as possible the principles involved, and come to a solution that can keep everyone relatively happy.
One can explain the difference between a homily and a eulogy. The homily, given after the Gospel by the priest or deacon, is an interpretation of the person’s life by reference to the suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ.
First of all, the practice of eulogies at Catholic funerals is officially discouraged. In the General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals, we are told that a homily is to be given, “but there is never to be a eulogy” (no. 27). By a eulogy is meant an elongated narration of the human achievements and qualities of the deceased person. Certainly, homilies have to have a personal quality and the homilist has to connect the readings to the life and death of the deceased. The primary emphasis is always, however, on the readings and the symbols of the funeral rite – and most of all on the Cross and resurrection of Christ.
There is certainly a place for the whole genre of presentations that fall under the heading of a eulogy, and this is outside the funeral Mass, notably at the end of the funeral vigil. The Church prescribes that before the end of the vigil, “a member or a friend of the family may speak in remembrance of the deceased” (no. 80). Also, when the vigil is completed, there is in my opinion a place for additional talks. Another obvious place for eulogies about the deceased is at the luncheon that generally follows the funeral.
When I meet with families to prepare the funeral, and the question of talks by family members or friends come up, I always try to steer them toward the vigil. This often works. If they persist in saying something at the funeral Mass, then I ask that only one person speak, that the talk be kept to five minutes or less, and that the content be reverent and appropriate (no jokes, no narration of unseemly episodes in the person’s life, etc.). This is sometimes a tricky negotiation; the last thing a pastor wants to do is upset the family on the occasion of a funeral.
No diocese in the Unite States that I know of has banned eulogies at the end of funeral Masses, but I am aware that some in Ireland and Australia have. As things presently stand in the U.S., judgment seems to be left to the pastor.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus at St. Vincent de Paul Parish.