The Liturgy Wars: Catholic Funerals

This is a very touchy subject for a lot of people; probably because most people involved in organizing and arranging funerals at a Catholic Church are fundamentally decent people.  Nobody wants to make anything harder on a grieving family.  They just lost a relative; and now they have to go through the additional sadness and stress of picking out what prayers, readings, and music to use at the funeral; in addition to dealing with the funeral home, and managing the relatives that they don’t usually speak to when they come into town to “help.”

And because most people in the employ of a Catholic Church are good folks, they usually don’t issue ultimatums to grieving families.  And this is exactly where our fundamental decency comes back to bite us.

Yes, it’s a funeral.  Yes, it’s hard on the family.  And yes, most of the time I’m usually willing to bend just a tiny bit to accommodate the individual taste of the deceased.  “Oh, my mother just loved the song ‘Amazing Grace.’  Will you please play it at the funeral?”

No 1

Except I can’t actually do that.

Well . . . to be honest, I loathe that song.  It’s also not appropriate for a Catholic Mass, and certainly not a Catholic funeral.  However, your mom just died.  If she requested that song specifically before she died, then I’m willing to grant the nice old lady’s request, and play the song.  The day before a funeral isn’t the time or place to pick the strict orthodoxy fight with anyone.

But we seem to have forgotten one very important thing: a Catholic funeral is still the Mass.  And therefore, all the liturgical rules about the Mass still apply to a funeral.  There’s been a large hole in the formation of Catholics in the last sixty years, especially regarding the proper music used in the Liturgy, and it’s even worse when it comes to funerals.

We’re Catholics; funerals are different for us than for our separated Protestant brethren, and there’s nothing really wrong with that.  In most Protestant denominations, there is no Purgatory.  I’m pretty sure that Catholics (and those in the Eastern rites) are about the only ones who believe in Purgatory at all.  So, when someone dies, what’s the point in continuing to pray for them?  If there’s no Purgatory, then nothing we can do will affect the state of their soul after they’ve died.  They’re either in heaven or hell, period.  So, if that’s the case, what is the real point of the funeral?  Remembrance of the dead, of course; but primarily, it’s for the comfort of the living.

That’s not meant to be a criticism of our Protestant brethren; just an explanation of where our beliefs differ.  I have a point, I promise.

Catholics, on the other hand, do believe that our prayers can help the dead, and this is where the purpose of a Catholic funeral becomes very different from the purpose of a Protestant funeral.  The point of a funeral for a deceased Catholic is to pray for their soul.  What happens at that funeral has an effect on them in the afterlife.  That’s also why the deceased only gets one Requiem Mass.

So, what does this have to do with the music at a Catholic funeral?

We’re sending them to their final resting place.  We’re trying to help their soul get through Purgatory, which, according to various accounts of saints like Padre Pio, is a very unpleasant experience.  Our comfort is secondary to the state of their soul.

I direct your attention to Canon 1176:

Deceased members of the Christian faithful must be given ecclesiastical funerals according to the norm of law.  Ecclesiastical funerals, by which the Church seeks spiritual support for the deceased, honors their bodies, and at the same time brings the solace of hope to the living, must be celebrated according to the norm of the liturgical laws.

Please note the order in which those purposes are listed: first is spiritual support for the deceased.  Solace of hope to the living is last.  And the funeral Mass “must be celebrated according to the norm of the liturgical laws.”


So, why do we insist on treating the funeral for our deceased relatives like some family reunion or get-together with music that should have died out and been forgotten back in the 1960s?

It’s not about what we like.  I’m sure that you may have a special place in your heart for “On Eagle’s Wings” or “How Great Thou Art,” but that’s not the point.  I’m also quite sure that your mother/father/sister/brother/aunt/uncle/etc. might have truly loved “Amazing Grace.”  But as I’ve said repeatedly and ad nauseam, it’s not about you.

A funeral is still the Mass, and the rules that apply to music at the Mass still apply to funeralsIf the music is inappropriate for Sunday Mass, it’s also inappropriate for the funeral, no matter how much the deceased or his family loves the song, and that includes trying to use Mozart’s Requiem at an actual Requiem Mass.  But once again, if you don’t know what the norms are under the usual circumstances — like Sunday Mass — then there’s no way you’ll suddenly just wake up one morning and know what you’re supposed to choose for your deceased relative’s funeral.

It turns out, then, that when a funeral comes up on the schedule, the organist is stuck.  The day before the funeral, as I said, isn’t the time or place to try and make the orthodoxy argument.  It’s hard enough under normal circumstances to try and explain that to someone; it’s even worse when they’re grieving for their relative.  Plus, it’s inappropriate to add to their grief and stress by telling them that what they’ve chosen is unsuitable.  What are you going to do?  Just walk up to someone mourning the death of their father and say, “hey, by the way, your taste in liturgical music sucks”?

And no, I wouldn't do that.

And no, I wouldn’t do that.

The problem goes back to the way the music at the Mass is perceived by most people; that it’s a matter of taste.  So, when it comes to a funeral, it’s not about praying for a soul, or about the Liturgy itself; it’s about the personal taste of the deceased and their family, and the organist better put up and shut up, because otherwise, she’s a total b**** picking on a grieving family.

This can’t be solved the day before the funeral in question.  You don’t kill a weed by pulling on the leaves one at a time; you yank it up by the roots, and the roots of this particular weed have been growing almost unchecked for the last sixty years.  It’s not a weed that’ll just forget to show up at a funeral.  It’s always there.

And it really isn’t the grieving family’s fault that their taste is for things like this

and this,

rather than this,

or this.

The fault here lies in how people have been taught for the last sixty years, and that can’t be fixed the day before a funeral, and certainly not if the pastor and all the church employees — including the organist — are trying to be kind to the family.

Worse, it occasionally happens that the family members who are in charge of planning the funeral haven’t been to Mass in a while.  If they’re not regular Sunday Mass goers, they’ll base their selections off of what they heard the last time they went to a funeral, or what someone else who just planned a funeral suggested to them when they asked for help.  So, the pattern continues, and will do so until someone manages to put a stop to it.

Every now and then (this actually happened to me just once, and it was probably the best day of my life as an organist), the family will actually say “I don’t care, just let the organist pick,” and that always helps.  The only way (in my opinion) to convince people who are still stuck in the pattern set for Liturgical Music in the 1960s is to show them how it can be different.

Here, don’t order me to play “Morning Has Broken” and “Eagle’s Wings.”  Let me show you how beautiful the music can be at your relative’s funeral; how the appropriate music can help people pray for your relative’s soul; how the traditional music of the church can uplift you in your time of grief the way nothing else can.

Let me chant the propers for your deceased family member.  Let me say the words of Psalm 130 and help you pray for their soul with timeless and beautiful words set to simple, powerful music:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice!
O let your ears be attentive
to the sound of my pleadings.

I long for you, O Lord,
my soul longs for his word.
My soul hopes in the Lord
more than watchmen for daybreak.

More than watchmen for daybreak,
let Israel hope for the Lord.
For with the Lord there is mercy,
in him is plentiful redemption.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

Let me use the traditional prayers of the Church, and sing them for your family member:

These words aren’t just something thrown onto a page and sung at the Mass because there was a long, awkward silence during the reception of Holy Communion.  These are prayers, and they work.  So, why would we waste time during the Requiem Mass singing something as self-centered as “Here I Am, Lord” or “Morning Has Broken” when we could use that exact same time to say real prayers that actually assist the soul of the departed?

We’re not there for us; we’re there for the soul of the deceased, and if even half of the stories about Purgatory are true, anyone in there needs all the help they can get from us.  Let’s not waste a perfectly good Requiem Mass on fluffy music that helps no one; we need to send as many prayers their way as we can, and the best way to do that is with real Liturgical Music.

lsbFollow the squirrel minion to get to Lori’s website, Little Squirrel Books.

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2 Responses to The Liturgy Wars: Catholic Funerals

  1. AnneMarie says:

    Thank you thank you thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I think All Souls Day is a perfect time to talk about how Catholic funerals should be done, because-like you mentioned-bringing up the Orthodoxy issues when a family is grieving and planning a funeral isn’t necessarily the best time. When I studied the Rite of Catholic Funerals a few years back in a college class, it was very eye-opening and awesome, and I hope that more people will take the time to learn about that (and the music issue), so that when a death in the family does happen, they will know how to respond liturgically-speaking.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Amazing Grace” sounds better sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun,” which makes it far more unworthy than before, but more fun in a non-liturgical setting.


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