Sometimes the ABC comes up with a program that that both interests and fascinates me. One such was the recent series about funerals in our culturally diverse Australia. When my cousin and his son died four years ago in a tragic farm accident, their funerals were a glorious and heart-breaking mix of riderless horses, the local football club and funny but vaguely inappropriate eulogies tucked in between Psalm 23 and Amazing Grace. It was memorable, and it suited the personalities of the two men we were grieving, but it would never have got past first base in my Catholic parish. Funerals in the format the Catholic Church requires can be a bit of a problem.
That same year I attended the funeral of my late father’s best friend, Frank. Frank’s story and my father’s intersected in the early nineties when they were both senior citizens from Melbourne spending their children’s inheritance on overseas travel. They met at a summer school at Trinity College Dublin, ostensibly studying Irish literature. Over the next fifteen years they talked and travelled their way around bits and pieces of the world.
Until my father’s death they managed to meet every week or so. Together they sorted out the problems besetting the government, any government come to that, fuelled by sandwiches – Frank’s contribution, and oozy vanilla slices – definitely my father’s choice, accompanied by a large pot of tea. They shared personal concerns that would never have otherwise found healing words, argued about religion and clucked in disapproval over the spendthrift ways of the younger generation. By that my dad usually meant me!
During these years Frank had gradually returned to the Catholic practices of his younger days. A meticulous man, he left instructions that when he died his funeral was to be in the catholic tradition, but there was to be no requiem mass. Frank’s extended family was like most families today – some cradle Catholics, some nothing, some practicing, most not. A requiem mass, however liturgically correct, and however deep and meaningful the symbols accompanying it undoubtedly are, would have mystified them.
So we gathered in the chapel of a funeral parlour. A priest friend read a piece of scripture and recited some prayerful words over the coffin. There was no footy theme song played at this funeral and even though like most of us, he did it his way, Frank Sinatra wasn’t there to tell us so. His son and daughter spoke about his life with its ups and downs and the whole ceremony had a celebratory sort of feel about it. The words and music were sober but they spoke of a gentle man and who he had been to his family and friends.
Each person who is born lives and dies wrapped around in the stories and experiences that hold their God-given uniqueness. When a loved one dies the grieving family and friends look for meaningful ways to express that.
A funeral gives them an opportunity to dip into the mystery of God and the mystery that is the person. I think we need to be careful in the ways we limit how that happens. Diocesan guidelines use language with deep theological implications and practical, if restricting, directions on just how to do this. Unfortunately most of us don’t know what they are talking about.
We have a wonderfully rich religious culture but, by and large, we have lost the key to it. The religious symbols and language meant to help us express the grief, hope, expectations and the love that surface when death edges into life everlasting have lost their meaning in a welter of other images and responses. Hence the need we feel to lace the requiem mass with words and music that do express, however crudely, what we struggle to find words for.
The friendship between my father and Frank, in its openness and love, put skin on the relationship that God had with both of them. Nobody thought to mention that at Frank’s funeral liturgy. But maybe it was there. The final song was ‘Danny Boy’.