Funerals aren't just about the dead. The living hijack them
My deepest condolences to Donald Trump on the occasion of John McCain’s funeral. Mr Trump wasn’t invited, you see. Everyone else was: Presidents Obama, W Bush and Clinton. But not Sarah Palin (who has only ever been gracious about her former running mate) and not Donald Trump (who was very rude about him). With Trump out of the picture, the rest of the establishment was free to let rip on the President in a way that reminded me of Fr Ted name-checking priests in his award speech. “And now we move on to liars…”
Funerals are not just about the person being buried: the living hijack them. One difficult memory is the funeral of a woman who loved Wagner, Bruckner and Brahms. Her daughter insisted the coffin was lowered to a song by Elvis. Worse: she sang along to it. Was this revenge? Not at all, it’s just that without the deceased being around to supervise, we take control of the arrangements and tend to make it more about us.
Eulogies often go down this path. My eulogy for my father wasn’t so much about his life as it was about our strained relationship – a case of getting things off my chest while he was in no position to answer back. The service was incredibly religious (Baptist) because that’s what my mother wanted. I selected the hymns. In the end, I think this all worked out rather well because if dad had been left in charge he’d have been buried with his guitar or something. And there’s no way we could’ve afforded Rod Stewart to play at the reception.
My father had down-to-earth tastes; the McCains are the epitome of the American WASP elite. Watching the late Senator’s funeral, it was obvious we were watching a last rites of a dying class – marked by public service, church, military and politics, all the things that McCain dedicated himself to. But even within this elite, there is generational change. His daughter, Meghan, gave a powerful eulogy full of poetry and raw anger. She said that her father, who had been tortured as a POW in Vietnam and died of brain cancer, “bore it all with the stoic silence that was once the mark of an American man”. She’s right: American men now emote and curse and insult, just like Donald Trump. But where was Meghan’s stoic silence? I’m not blaming her for weeping – I asked someone else to read my father’s eulogy in case I broke down doing it – but as the camera moved about the cathedral, I noticed Cindy McCain, John’s wife, sitting perfectly still in a black dress and pearls, composed and apparently unmoved. That is WASP elegance, and money can’t buy it.
Catholics do funerals well because there is order, a focus on Christ and, most importantly, stoic silence. There’s been a tendency in recent years to do like the Protestants do and have lots of pop music or long speeches, and I know that’s what the mourners might want, and I know they yearn to express themselves a particular way – but priests must rein them in. Better to sit and pray and let the dead, through memory, speak for themselves.
I’m avoiding reading or writing too much commentary on the accusations against Pope Francis. Why? Because I’m uncertain, anxious, confused, not sure what to believe. It’s a time to focus on the Eucharist, which is why it’s so good that the first major Eucharist congress in England since 1908 will take place in Liverpool this weekend. Thousands are expected to follow the Blessed Sacrament through the streets in the kind of display of popular piety that we so desperately need.
Always, always focus on Christ: I believe that a lot of the present troubles of the Church could find their answer in doing that. He is a model of living; his teachings point us away from sin. And when confronted by both his love and majesty, one is humbled. So much sin extends from pride.
Some think that traditionalist liturgy is in itself prideful – that its elegance and mystery is a distraction from Christ on the Cross or the human community in the pews. I couldn’t disagree more. A good liturgy serves a theological function I’m not sufficiently well-educated to understand, but the psychological response it produces in people is easy to grasp. Have you noticed that everyone, regardless of their faith or lack of it, when they enter an empty church falls silent? That same aura – the drama of silence – casts its spell over the Tridentine Mass.
I’m not saying for one moment that it could cure the world of all its problems, but I’m convinced that if it was more widely celebrated, the Tridentine would help concentrate minds on what really matters in Catholicism.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor
This article first appeared in the September 7 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here