Are American Catholic funerals ‘off the track’?

November 17, 2011

Bobz Book Reviews

Funerals aren’t what they used to be.

That’s the gist of the foreword to a book I’ve just gotten into.

The title is “Great American Catholic Eulogies” (Acta Publications out of Chicago), and it’s just that — a collection of eulogies of folks who are Catholic and whose names many of us will recognize: Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Kilmer, Dorothy Day.

There’s 50 in all, and the eulogizers are often just as well known as the person be eulogized: Grantland Rice (on Babe Ruth); Maria Schriver (on Tim Russert), Ronald Reagan (on John F. Kennedy).

I can’t wait to read these, but I was stopped by the following excerpt in the foreword and had to share it with somebody. It’s written by Thomas Lynch, an undertaker. Needless to say he attends a lot of funerals. I wondered how many of us would disagree with him, or like me find themselves nodding in agreement.

Here goes:

“…the ritual wheel that worked the space between the living and the dead still got us where we needed to go. It made room for the good laugh, the good cry, and the power of faith brought to bear on the mystery of mortality….

“For many Americans, however, that wheel has gotten off track or needs to be reinvented. The loosened ties of faith and family, of religious and ethnic identity, have left them ritually adrift, bereft of custom, symbol, metaphor, and meaningful liturgy or language. Many Americans are now spiritual tourists without home places or core beliefs to return to.  Rather than dead Mormons or Muslims, Catholics or Buddhists, we are now dead golfers or gardeners, bikers or bowlers. The bereaved are not so much family and friends or fellow believers as like-minded hobbyists or enthusiasts. And I have become less the funeral director and more the memorial caddy of sorts, getting the dead out of the way and the living assembled for a memorial ‘event’ that is neither sacred nor secular but increasingly absurd — a triumph of accessories over essentials, stuff over substance, theme over theology.

“The genuine dead are downsized or disappeared and we are left with memorial services where the finger food is good, the music transcendent, the talk determinedly ‘life affirming,’ the accouterments all purposefully cheering and inclusive, and where someone can be counted on to declare ‘closure’ just before the merlot runs out.”

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About Bob Zyskowski

Bob is the Client Products Manager for the Communications Office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A 42-year veteran of the Catholic Press, he is the former Associate Publisher of The Catholic Spirit. You can follow him on twitter or email him at

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