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Last Word - November 2010

Words of Remembrance

Recently, I noticed how often at funerals we sing “Amazing Grace.” It’s the most popular hymn in America. Curiously, I heard on the radio once that the song most often played at funerals held at funeral homes is “I did it my way” with Frank Sinatra. Interesting, isn’t it, how these two songs are in complete contrast? The Sinatra song is all about independence and freedom to choose your own way, it expresses the rugged individualism of the American spirit and one’s ability to be and do anything you want. The hymn tells us that we depend on God for everything and must give up our own ways for His way. We are members of a community of faith, and we rely on God’s power and not our own.

Like many priests, I attend a lot of funerals. In the reform of the funeral ritual which took place in the late 1980s, the ritual allowed that after the Communion Prayer and before the Final Commendation, someone could “speak in remembrance of the decreased.” People have begun to refer to these as “eulogies,” but that is not what they are meant to be. A eulogy, by definition, is a laudatory speech praising someone who has died. But we really don’t do that in the Christian tradition. We don’t do it because we know that the praise belongs to God and not to ourselves (“Not to us, oh Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory,” Psalm 115). You listen to eulogies, and you sometimes get the impression that the dearly departed pulled himself up by his own bootstraps and saved himself. But it isn’t true. As the hymn proclaims, we are saved by the grace of God. We are saved by Jesus Christ.

For me, these words of remembrance should express that which was most important in this person’s life. And many wonderful things do get said during this time. However, I have been struck by the fact that I don’t think I have ever heard the name of Jesus mentioned in a single “eulogy” I have listened to. I have heard far more references to the Boston Red Sox in eulogies than I have to God.

Now, there are at least two possible reasons for this. First, it could be the deceased’s relationship with God was so much a part of him or her that it is taken for granted. But it could also be for the opposite reason: Jesus was simply not a value in this person’s life. I fear the second, because survey after survey has revealed that, in Maine, Jesus, faith and prayer are simply not an important part of most people’s daily lives.

The answer to the question, “Who are you?” is, first of all, that you are a son or daughter of the Father, you are disciple of Jesus, you are a member of Christ. Of all the other things that can be said of any of us, only this survives death, only this goes with us before God, only this endures: not even the Red Sox.

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal