Very frequently we have to re-educate our colleagues in the funeral services profession that every family, every loved one who has died, deserves some form of spirituality in their final farewells. I’ve commented on that aspect of my chaplaincy ministry in greater detail in my article When Your Funeral Director Doesn’t Offer Chaplain Services, which may be of interest not only to those among you who are celebrants or officiants but also to those of you who are pre-planning or who will need to plan a funeral or memorial service for yourself or a family member. Everyone wants, needs to be remembered, and everyone leaves us with valuable meaning and legacy. The funeral or memorial homily should emphasize that fact and package it so that the bereaved and mourners can benefit from the insights.
A Life Should Not Only Be Lived, It Should Be Celebrated.
I like the image of the homily as being a package or a container, and as such it has to be of appropriate material and dimensions if it is to contain the intended message and insights that will aid mourners in their grief work and their healing and transformation. After all, who would take their mashed potatoes and gravy home in a brown paper bag? Similarly, a homily should not be nondescript, lifeless, neutral, if it is to contain spiritual nourishment for mourners, should it?
Another thought that comes to mind is that a funeral or memorial homily is similar to the Sunday homily in a couple of ways: First of all, like the Sunday homily it must connect the readings from Holy Scripture, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or other readings, with what follows, that is, the final separation of the dead from the living, the closure of disposition of the mortal remains. It must celebrate a spiritual doctrine, most frequently that of resurrection and eternal life in some form; in other words, it must deliver a message confirming hope without proselytizing. Thirdly, it should relate the readings to the lives of the living without excessive theologizing, critique, or pedantry. No one at a funeral or memorial is in the mood for a lecture. A final note that I’d like to make is that it should provide insights that will allow mourners in their own individual and personal experiences to find meaning in the life of the deceased. That meaning-making should be theirs, personal, and relevant (that’s where skilled interviewing during the family conference comes in handy). As an effective homilist I must honor communion in diversity.
While the funeral or memorial homily shares quite a number of features with the Sunday homily, it differs substantially from the Sunday homily in several ways, too. For one thing, the assembly at the Sunday homily will probably be regulars every Sunday. They will share certain socio-economic, cultural—including linguistic—and tradition features. They will also have certain needs and expectations, with which the preacher will be or should be intimately familiar, if he is a pastor worth his salt. In other words, the preacher and the assembly have some idea of what to expect when they walk through the doors of that sacred space.
Another similarity is that the preacher will likely know to some degree the people in the pews, he’ll be somewhat familiar with their personalities, their idiosyncrasies, their problems, fears, interests, their spiritualities, etc. In other words, the assembly will have all of the interpersonal features of an extended family, if you will. That makes it somewhat easier to craft a homily based on the Lectionary and on the listeners.
Rather than produce a dirge of a homily or deviating from the nature of the homily and perverting it to make it an eulogy, I prefer focusing on the life of the deceased and the characteristics of the family…
The Sunday homily will be based on readings for that particular liturgical cycle as laid down in the Lectionary for that particular Sunday. This has the advantage that both the preacher and the assembly can review in advance the readings, and even prayerfully reflect on them in lectio divina. We must approach the Sacred Scriptures—no matter what the faith or belief tradition—with prayerful attentiveness and move towards reflection on its meaning, in order to share its beauty and power. Lectio divina, therefore, should also find a place in the process of crafting the funeral or memorial homily because there is a sort of lectionary of sacred readings in most of the ritual books for funerals. In some cases, we are stuck with those readings because of the directives of the particular tradition. For example, in the Roman Catholic tradition one of the requirements is to emphasize the Paschal Mystery in the homily; consequently, the readings in the lectionary of the Order of Christian Funerals, the ritual book for Roman Catholic death rites, includes readings that follow that guideline. But rather than produce a dirge of a homily or deviating from the nature of the homily and perverting it to make it an eulogy, I prefer focusing on the life of the deceased and the characteristics of the family, to expand my options to include other readings not included in the lectionary. Sacred Scripture is at the heart of the homily regardless of the tradition, and it is such a treasure trove of relevant material that we should take advantage of the entire corpus of material available to us.
While meditating on the nature of the homily, I had an epiphany of sorts: Unless the assembly is a very homogeneous group, the funeral or memorial homily is very much like the homily that a missionary would deliver to a heterogeneous group made up of believers and unbelievers or agnostics. In other words, as a funeral officiant I am frequently addressing a very mixed assembly and must be exceedingly careful to honor each member in that assembly while avoiding any appearance of judgmentalism. I must also avoid proselytizing, evangelization, catechization while showing respect and reverence for the various belief and faith traditions represented in the assembly, and being privileged to be the homilist at such an intimate time I have a duty to respond their hunger for deeper spirituality, nourish them with truth and guidance, and instruct them in the beauty and wisdom of tradition. In essence, then, I frequently have to approach the assembly of mourners as a mystagogue initiating or re-initiating them into a faith, spirituality or at least a belief system, almost analogous to the missionary in the wilderness.
Every Homily is a Summons to Conversion; Metanoite!
As a homilist I have to be driven, impelled by Love. It is Love that gives reality and beauty and meaning to all of creation, and it is Love that will inspire community, meaning, healing and transformation in the bereaved. Love is extending one’s self for the nurturance of spiritual growth in the other. We must keep in mind that every homily is a summons to conversion, to metanoia. It is the homilist’s art through the words, insights, and examples of the homily to compellingly and inevitably guide the listener to a desire to change, to transform.
I read in the USCCB statement, Preaching the Mystery of Faith:
“Homilies are inspirational when they touch the deepest levels of the human heart and address the real questions of human experience. While I don’t want to flavor this article with any particular tradition, I would go on to quote that statement in that “Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, spoke of people having ‘little hopes’ and the ‘great hopes’. Little hopes are those ordinary experiences of joy and satisfaction we often experience…But underneath these smaller hopes must pulsate a deeper “great hope” that ultimately gives meaning to all of our experience: the hope for life beyond death, the thirst for ultimate truth, goodness, beauty, and peace, the hope for communion with God himself.”
Whatever one’s concept of God might be, even if one has no concept, these greater hopes keep one going day by day. And it is, after all, Hope that every homily aims to provide.
And what better way to celebrate a life lived than to preach hope?
This seems like a good place to stop, so I’ll leave you with that thought.
Peace and Hope always!