Catholic funerals: Bishop Elliott explains Melbourne's guidelines

Catholic funerals: Bishop Elliott explains Melbourne's guidelines

Bishop Peter J. Eliott

It might be heresy in Melbourne to say that "Good Old Collingwood For Ever" cannot be sung as Dad's casket leaves the church. This is why a row erupted in the Melbourne Herald Sun when Archbishop Denis Hart dared to issue Guidelines for Catholic Funerals, particularly a veto on  romantic ballads, pop or rock music, political songs, football club songs.

But the basic question is - what  is a Catholic funeral? Here the Guidelines spell it out clearly, focusing on the Mass and citing the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal: "The Church offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice of Christ's Passover for the dead so that, since all members of Christ's body are in communion with each other, the petition of spiritual help on behalf of some may bring comforting hope to others" (GIRM 379).

To maintain what the Church expects, the Guidelines affirm that the celebrant of a funeral is in control, not the family or the funeral director: "The Parish Priest or the priest or deacon designated to celebrate a funeral determines the content and form of the funeral liturgy. The wishes of the deceased, family and friends should be taken into account, with pastoral kindness and consideration. But in planning the liturgy, the celebrant should moderate any tendency to turn the funeral into a secular celebration of the life of the deceased."

Celebrating a life?

Reflecting secularisation, funeral directors personalise funerals, turning them into celebrations of the life of the deceased. This collides with a Catholic funeral liturgy because, as the Guidelines state, "A Catholic funeral is not 'A celebration of the life of Mary Brown' or 'A Memorial Service for Mary Brown'. These designations should never appear in media announcements or on the booklet."

The pastoral problem here is the loss of the wake. What was celebrated naturally at home or elsewhere is now intruded into the church. So the Guidelines state:  "... celebrating memories of the life of deceased may be carried out:

- the night before the funeral, either at the funeral parlour, or before the vigil or rosary in the church - if permitted by the Parish Priest;

- in a separate moment before the Mass or a Liturgy of the Word begins - if permitted by the Parish Priest;

- at some social occasion before or after the funeral."

Banned songs

The media row focused on one sentence: "Secular items are never to be sung or played at a Catholic funeral, such as romantic ballads, pop or rock music, political songs, football club songs."

What the media missed was the section of the Guidelines on planning a Catholic funeral, taking us beyond a dull rite with a few hymns or canned music, with the beautiful "Saints of God" recited, not sung. Funerals often reveal the appalling state of Catholic "liturgical" music, not only the slide into popular secular songs but the lingering reign of "sacro-pop". Hopefully, the new ICEL translations will open the way for some better music.

Without comment, the media reported another sensitive matter in the Guidelines: "At the funerals of children, pastoral care needs to be taken in the choice of music. Nursery rhymes and sentimental secular songs are inappropriate because these may intensify grief."


Many readers have endured funerals prolonged by a series of repetitive and trivial eulogies. I concelebrated at a funeral where the Prayers of the Faithful turned into a half hour of eulogies. Yet a pastoral need is evident here, and balance is reflected in the Guidelines, based on requests from priests for control in this area.

The homily should never be a eulogy. "However, for pastoral reasons one eulogy (words of farewell) may be a non-liturgical moment in the Mass or Liturgy of the Word. It should be brief and should show respect for the deceased. The eulogy may be shared by several people, provided this has been planned beforehand so that it will be brief and to avoid repetition."


Another matter covered by the Guidelines is cremation, which has spread among Catholics since 1963. Again a basic question is raised: What is cremation? 

From an objective point of view it is only processing a dead body. For Christians cremation has no religious significance, which is partly why the Church opposed cremation when it was promoted by atheists in the nineteenth century.

What we do with the ashes is what matters. Christians bury or set human remains in a "place of rest". Therefore the Guidelines recommend that, after funeral rites, private cremation may take place without prayers then, "At some later time, by arrangement with the family or friends, the ashes are interred in the churchyard, in a cemetery, or some other appropriate place. The committal prayers for the burial of a body are used. The place of interment should be marked with the name of the deceased to assist those who wish to visit that place and to encourage prayer for the dead."

In light of this advice, the Guidelines state: "In accord with Catholic tradition, scattering ashes cannot be regarded as an appropriate way of treating the earthly remains of the dead."

But why can't my ashes be scattered in a favorite place? Tackling another sign of secularisation, the Guidelines explain: "Scattering ashes in a favorite place, e.g., on a golf course or at a beach, may even imply that the deceased would want to remain there, in this world, rather than entering eternal life with God." 

The Guidelines also reject the morbid practice of keeping ashes at home with an interesting observation: "Keeping ashes at home or sharing ashes between relatives is also inappropriate and may imply an unhealthy even superstitious attitude to the remains of the dead."

The spiritual health of a society may be measured by the respect it shows to its dead. In Melbourne we are meeting that challenge of disrespectful secularisation in a firm but pastoral way.

Full text of the Guidelines for Funerals:

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