The attention of our nation and the world has been arrested in the last week by the public celebrations of the lives of both The Queen of Soul, Ms. Aretha Franklin, and The Maverick, Senator John McCain. While these two celebrations of life were vastly different in that they represented the community norms specific to their individual social locations, religio- cultural norms, and ethnic backgrounds, each featured opportunity for speech making. The occasion of public speaking at the funeral of those who have transitioned the earthly plane of consciousness is perhaps one of the most sensitive moments in the liturgy. Through the witness of mass media, we have seen examples of both the best and worst execution of the task on full display as the world has mourned collectively.
Death is one certainty in every life, the one inevitable event. But every death is unique and has different impact on individuals, families, and communities. We must never pretend that it is unimportant or underestimate the effects of how a person dies on those who remain, but we must also remember that death no matter how it comes, is common to us all (Chapman 1999). With that in mind, the liturgy must bare all the dignity and respect human transition deserves and hold special care for those who mourn. Speaking at the funeral is an honor, but we must never forget it is a liturgical act. It is sacred, and as a part of Holy Ritual, it must not be treated as a platform for personal agenda. As it is a liturgical act, a ritual, it is therefore an exercise of communal speech. The eulogist must be particularly aware that preaching does not take place in a vacuum, but within the action and discipline of the assembly. Dogma is embodied in the assembly. It can even be argued that the eulogist gains importance primarily because they are servants of the assembly (Lathrup 1998). It is a momentous disservice to the family, the assembly, and the deceased for the eulogist to offer words that are tone deaf to the community they stand in service of. The highest honor the eulogist can give to their call is to speak Gospel in such a way that it resonates in the hearts of the assembled.
As a Bishop, my own postcolonialist sensibilities call me to acknowledge, and share with the clergy in my charge, that cultures themselves are always mixed, even “mongrel”, ever-changing amalgamations of social influences. Even our liturgies are hybrid and intermingled because we are living in and enjoying the fruits of many cultures (Wilkey 2014). The Eulogy must be the most transcultural moment that reaches beyond the eulogist personality and speaks to the assembly words that help put life and death, particularly the times and season of the deceased, into context for the assembly. The eulogist engages, together with the whole church, in moral formation and character development (Anderson 1993). This happens partly through direct moral teaching, but primarily through retelling the Gospel narrative and the narrative of God’s work in the life of the deceased. It is the creative rehearsing of this material blending the ancient text with the contemporary witness of the life of the deceased that cultivates the moral imagination of the assembly. The Eulogist should never marginalize or demean the assembly; there is no room in this liturgical moment to allow one’s personal agenda to overshadow the lifting of the collective consciousness.
The eulogist must never forget that everyone wishes that when they are eulogized, they are forgiven. That any and all lapses, greed, errors, would be looked upon with charity or at best spoken about in charitable context (Baldwin 1955).This is the last thing the assembly can give to each other: the agape, grace, and forgiveness commanded by Holy Writ. This is not cheap grace that excuses a person’s failings; this is a communal forgiveness which allows the assembly to move on to resurrection. The eulogist never forgets the message is to the living. The family is primary witness of the life of the deceased, but the whole assembly together is witness to the eulogy and call is to engage the assembly in the work of better living in preparation for their individual and collective transition. Central to the service should be the love and the care of those dealing with grief and loss. Never should these moments be taken to invoke fear for that would be the most egregious form emotional abuse and spiritual manipulation. There is a way to lift up the values of the community and even its theological claims without victimizing those already traumatized by grief and loss.
As we consider the power and mistakes of our most recent public celebrations of life let us consider the purpose for which we gather in ritual when those we love and cherish transition.
Please feel free to comment below.
Peace Is Possible,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Anderson, Terence R. 1993. Walking the Way: Christian Ethics as a Guide. Vancouver, BC: Regent College.
Baldwin, James. 1955. Notes of A Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press.
Chapman, Raymond. 1999. A Pastoral Prayer Book: Occasional Prayers for times of Change, Concern, and Celebration. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing.
Lathrup, Gordon W. 1998. Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Wilkey, Glaucia Vasconcelos, ed. 2014. Worship and Culture: Forgien Country or Homeland? Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.