Funerals are the last place you expect to see a revolution.
Funeral practices are often old fashioned. Solemnity matches grief and is most easily conveyed in formality. Formality tends to be expressed in yesterday’s traditions. The funeral director is one of the few men who still owns and regularly wears morning dress.
But funeral practices have been steadily undergoing significant change. This is seen most clearly in the rise of the modern eulogy.
A eulogy is a speech in praise of somebody. It is a formal tribute to the dead person. At some modern funerals not one but several eulogies are given.
People chosen to make the eulogies, are naturally amongst the closest of friends or relatives. Their view is one of grief and sorrow. The eulogy, often as not, tells us more about the speaker than the dead person.
The question of who gives the eulogy is as difficult and sensitive an issue as the question of who proposes the toast to the bride and groom. But the eulogy is more central to the funeral than the toast at the wedding. The toast to the couple happens at the reception not in the wedding itself. The eulogy has increasingly become the centrepiece of the funeral itself.
In previous days the eulogies would be central to the wake after the funeral. There would not be one eulogy but many stories, informally told. These would often involve humour even and especially at the deceased’s expense. There was always the possibility of telling both the good and the bad points of the dead person’s character.
But in the funeral itself the eulogy can only always be positive about the deceased. Indeed there is one of the real problems with eulogies. They are so positive as to be unbelievable.
Years ago when I was a young curate, a funeral director pointed out to me that in the car behind the hearse nobody spoke because of grief. In the second car of the funeral procession people spoke well of the deceased. But in the third and subsequent cars you got the real story of the dead person’s weakness and foibles.
Yet truth in eulogies is only the beginning of the problem. Eulogies are uncontrollable. Often people speaking out of their grief are not speaking for the benefit of the hearers but to process their own feelings. Such speeches are frequently interminable.
The content of the eulogies are also problematic. Some people use the eulogy to settle old scores in family disputes. Others bend over backward to avoid saying anything of substance.
Quite often the eulogies are vacuous nonsense as people struggle to come to terms with death. Incredibly silly things are said about the where the dead person now is and what they are doing. Usually people, not knowing how to finish, wind up by addressing the dead person in the coffin with some inane command or wish.
Strangely the eulogy brings little or no comfort. Although it helps people process their feelings, it only heightens grief. The better the eulogy is in capturing the greatness of the person we have lost, the deeper is the bitterness in our loss. The more imaginative and absurd the positive portrayal of the deceased the less reality is to be found for the grieving process.
Eulogies that praise to the heavens leave us mere mortals with guilt as well as grief. For there is no way that we will be able to live up to the standards set by the one who has died, and we have lost an irreplaceable paragon of humanity.
Comfort comes to us when we lift our eyes off the coffin and turn our attention to the Lord. When we face death in the light of the resurrection. When we see that death is not the victor but that Christ has conquered death. When we see that death will not have the last word on us for God is still in control.
It is the sermon not the eulogy that brings reality in death and comfort in grief. It takes our eyes off what we have lost and reminds us of what we will gain.
It is the loss of God that has lead people to replace His word with their own sentiments. Not knowing His wonderful victory they seek to face death on their own terms. Praising the life of the dead is the illusion that we can deal with death unscathed.
God says that Christians are not to grieve as those who have no hope “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).