Burying the Dead; Corporal Work of Mercy or ‘succour to murderous thugs’?
Should Frank Sinatra have been allowed a church funeral? It was one of the questions that followed the death in 1998 of one of the most popular and influential actors and singers of the twentieth century.
Sinatra was raised a Catholic, as might be expected from his Italian background, but it could be said that he didn’t wear his Catholicism on his sleeve. There was always about ‘Old Blue Eyes’, as he was fondly known, a slight whiff of sulphur. A much-married man, he never seemed overtly religious.
Yet his funeral Mass was, as the Americans would say, something else. 30,000 white flowers decorated the church. His son Frank Jr and his daughter Nancy paid fulsome tributes at the Mass and, inevitably, his song, Put your dreams away, was centre-stage.
Afterwards, questions were asked about how appropriate the tribute was and indeed whether Sinatra was ‘entitled’ to a Funeral Mass. It’s a question that pops up regularly now when a church ceremony is effectively high-jacked with the funeral of a celebrity of whatever hue and the Mass ends up as an add-on to a celebration of his or her life that seems to have little to do with faith in the resurrection.
A famous recent example was the funeral of David Byrne, a prominent member of a Dublin crime-gang, who was gunned down in cold blood in the Regency Hotel in Dublin. The subsequent Mafia-type funeral caused huge outrage, with the god-fathers of crime gathered in a Dublin church accompanied by their fashionably dressed wives, partners and girlfriends, and driven in a series of stretch limousines in a vulgar display of wealth, all the more outrageous as it was built on the drug-infested deaths of so many young people in Dublin and the resulting legacy of misery to so many families. The expensive blue casket, glistening in the unlikely February sun, seemed to confound the insult.
Brenda Power, writing in the Mail, was exercised by Ireland’s crime families flaunting their ill-gotten gains and seemed to blame the church for allowing such funerals the use of churches, under the heading ‘Church should ban the funerals of gangsters instead of giving succour to murderous thugs’. What Power was saying was that if the Catholic Church in Ireland had any regard for themselves or any respect for their institutions or ceremonies they should really abhor the celebration of a gangster like David Byrne.
It’s a difficult issue, of course, and Power’s point of view was shared by many. But it’s not simple. One of the most difficult truths of the Christian faith is that no one is beyond the reach of God’s mercy. No one. This is easy to understand in theory but a difficult concept to accept in practice.
The Catholic Church posits the existence of Hell but never says that there’s anyone there. Not even Hitler or Stalin or any other evil ogre history has thrown up. Because to do so would be to limit the range of God’s forgiveness.
The Christian religion is more than a kind of social moralism – a dividend that contributes significantly to the values society has decided it’s happy with. The impetus of religion cannot be limited to what society regards as socially useful because, in a word, Christianity doesn’t allow itself to fit society’s moral or political ends. Christian faith, the writer Terry Eagleton has pointed out, ‘is not about moral uplift, political unity or aesthetic charm’. It starts with a crucified body.
The crucified body represents God’s incomprehensible, incalculable, unending love for each one of us. No one, Christian theology celebrates, is ever beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness.
So whether it’s the funeral of an IRA bomber during the troubles in the North or a priest pedophile buried in the dead of night or gangsters who have brought incredible suffering to countless individuals and families, that one truth applies to everyone. None of them is beyond the extended reach of God’s love and moderating that reach is not an option for a Christian church.
Jesus Christ expressed that truth clearly in just two words in Luke 6:37, ‘Judge not’.
David Byrne, regardless of what anyone might say about him, regardless of the many obvious and, it would seem, unrepented failures of his life, was entitled to a funeral Mass, not just by virtue of his baptism, not just as a consolation to family members devastated by his horrific death, but simply because God loves everyone, regardless, and no one has the right to pretend that any human being, priest, bishop or pope, can decide who is and who is not worthy of God’s love.
The other practical difficulty is that once human beings start deciding who’s entitled to a funeral Mass and who isn’t, we find ourselves in difficult straits. A week or so after David Byrne’s obsequies, the funeral took place of George Redmond, described by one national paper as ‘one of the most corrupt public officials in Irish history’. Should Redmond have been refused a funeral Mass? Should Liam Lawlor? Should Charlie Haughey? There’s no end to the list . . .
It has become common practice now for commentators to tell the Catholic Church to stop interfering in areas that are clearly the responsibility of the State and yet the Church is continually being blamed for not solving problems that its the State’s business to solve.
If there aren’t enough places in schools, why don’t the Catholic Church give up their schools? If criminals are walking the streets, parading themselves with their ill-gotten and gangsters are thumbing their noses at society, why don’t the Catholic Church refuse them a religious burial?
But, to quote practically every commentator in Ireland in the last three years, why doesn’t the Catholic Church look after its own business and leave the State – for example, in the two instances referred to above, the Department of Education and An Garda Síochána – to manage its own affairs.
That should apply the other way round too. When the Catholic Church does its business – reminding us that there’s no limit to God’s love – that should be respected too.
That’s a touchy subject. Who in their right mind would question a burial? This Brenda Power who is suggesting that some sort of familial retribution be laid at the casket of a dearly departed is a socio-path and if her point of view is shared by many, then what options do they give : a cremation with none in attendance? Besides, if they truly were the scourge of the earth, wouldn’t a celebration be the perfect sending off, honestly though? There are so many opinions to have on this planet but one of them, I truly believe this, should never be “What should they do with the body?” If you find yourself asking this question in the event that nothing illegal has taken place, stop and shake your head. You may have crossed a line unknowingly.
The reference to “priest pedophile buried in the dead of night” reminds me of one such priest buried in the small hours of the morning by the lights of a hearse after a rushed funeral Mass. If I recall correctly the order subsequently priest pedophile buried in the dead of night end I take solace in the fact that we will all be judged by the God who created us for eternal joy and not by the judgmental rabble of the angry minority.
As you say, “None of them is beyond the extended reach of God’s love.” Every one of us, without exception, depends on God’s mercy. That’s what the Christian funeral rite is about.
There could be a practical problem with the question of placing appropriate symbols of the life of the deceased person at the altar …
Perhaps the problem lies in the concept of a funeral as a celebration. I can well recall the bleak
funerals of the 50s and 60s: the frequently rushed Low Mass or, for the better-off in rural areas,
the Office (psalms recited at breakneck speed) and High Mass. Whichever you got, the occasion was as
depersonalised as one could imagine; and few people, I hope, would want to return to that.
As often happens, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, with such liturgically doubtful
elements as the bringing of artefacts (golf clubs, footbslls or whatever) to the altar, grandchildren lining up
to gabble the bidding prayers seriatim, jocular homilies etc. All this in a spirit of optimistic celebration of a
life well (or not) lived, with little reference to the need which we will all have for the prayers of those who are
left behind. This is particularly inappropriate in funerals of the kind mentioned in the piece above.
Hopefully,some day soon things may settle down on a dignified yet condoling middle ground. In the meantime,
all sympathy to the clergy who have to grapple with the problem.
I quote from a short piece of mine in relation to funerals – eulogies actually – recently published in the Furrow: ‘It seems to me, putting it simply, that the centre of gravity of the Catholic funeral liturgy is gradually shifting from the future to the past. Maybe this is a slight exaggeration, but one would be forgiven for thinking that there is a subtle tectonic change taking place in what I might call the theology of death: a lessening in belief in the reality of resurrection and eternal life, and, to judge from the eulogies I have heard, and from many of the homilies too, an increased emphasis on the life of the deceased. Something is wrong. A funeral Mass is primarily an act of praise of God, not of the deceased……All are equal in looking forward to resurrection and eternal life.’
Yes all: the politician, the actor, the poet, the gangster, and the ordinary woman and man in the street. Death the Leveller: especially true in the Catholic funeral liturgy; or at least it should be. But who is responsible for the often lavish, ‘he was a great man or woman’ liturgies that we have seen on our television screens in recent years, when some notable is being buried? If TD x or poet y is to have a life celebration liturgy, then so too should the gangster. Whoever is responsible must take some of the responsibility for turning the funeral of David Byrne into a Mafia-type orgy of excess.