The anonymous priest “Fr. Nonomen” at Commonweal describes an awful experience at one funeral, from bad music to weak preaching:
When it was time for the homily, Father Pastor stepped away from the pulpit and walked down to the family in the pews. I was about to give him extra points for speaking from the heart without notes, when, from under his robes, he produced a newspaper clipping. The obituary. He read it aloud and then did something I have never seen in all my decades of priesthood. He removed his reading glasses and casually placed them on the casket as if it were the coffee table in his living room. He continued in his own words, some of which I recognized from a sample homily in an old guide for funerals. But at this point no one in the congregation was paying much attention to what he was saying because we couldn’t take our eyes off those reading glasses! I knew the pastor to be a nice man. He wasn’t intentionally being disrespectful. Just unthinking.
Sensitivity. If there is ever a time when a parish is called to be sensitive, and to be thinking about what sensitivity requires, it’s when ministering to a family after a death. Not only has someone dearly loved been lost, but very often that loss comes after weeks or months of worry and suffering. Nerves have been rubbed raw and patience worn thin. Sometimes, a funeral is a person’s first contact with a parish after years of inactivity or absence.
In these days of larger parishes and fewer priests, chances are greater that the pastor will not have known the deceased.
I remember my uncle’s funeral at a parish in Trenton about 10 years ago. It was meticulously planned and executed. A woman—who clearly does this sort of thing at all the funerals—greeted people, welcomed everyone at the start of the liturgy, and explained the guidelines for reception of communion. She prompted the readers and led them to the ambo. Then at the end, she bid everyone a warm goodbye and offered directions to the cemetery for the committal. It made everything easier for everyone—especially the priest (though I don’t remember being particularly impressed or moved by his homily, which had a warmed-over, generic feel.)
I also have vivid memories of the funeral of my wife’s grandmother. In a large, modern church in Maryland, the priest picked up the lectionary from the ambo and came down to the first pew and proclaimed the gospel right there, in front of the immediate family. He preached from there, too. It made this small gathering feel even more familiar and closely connected to God’s word.
It can be done, folks. It just takes time and thought.