Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Unholy services are facing the last rites

An Irish Catholic bishop's mission to halt the 'dumbing down' of funeral Masses is doomed to failure, writes Michael Wolsey

Sacred row: Charlotte Church sang a 'funeral song' at the wedding of Rupert Murdoch
Sacred row: Charlotte Church sang a 'funeral song' at the wedding of Rupert Murdoch

Jean Martyn is a concert organist, who also does weddings and funerals. For cremations, she has devised a tasteful little combo, which her website calls the Crem Medley. It features Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire, Josef Locke's Blaze Away and The Platters' classic Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

Ms Martyn plies her trade in Essex and east London. She'd better not try it here. Not at a Catholic ceremony, anyway.

The Catholic Church, in the person of the Bishop of Meath, Dr Michael Smith, has called a halt to the "dumbing down" of funerals.

He wants to ban secular music, songs and texts and hopes to confine eulogies by relatives to the house, before the funeral, or the graveside, after the final rite of committal.

I'm with the bishop on this. Funerals don't have to be sorrowful, or gloomy, but they should be conducted with a bit of dignity.

I recently attended one, at which golf clubs were displayed on the coffin lid. I've heard of others where tokens of remembrance, brought to the altar, have included a Liverpool shirt, a miniature rugby ball and the collar of a favourite pet.

At a cremation in Roselawn, I watched the coffin go down to the strains of Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water.

Roselawn is a secular venue, but the ceremony was not. The deceased was a Methodist. He had a good sense of humour, but I doubt if John Wesley, the founder of his church, would have been amused.

Bishop Smith is not the first Catholic leader who has attempted to restore respect and good taste to the business of burial.

Back in 2003, the Catholic Church in Ireland's national centre for liturgy issued guidelines designed to curb inappropriate behaviour at funerals.

The centre's spokesman, Fr Patrick Jones, cited the telling of blue jokes, the display of women's underwear and an instance where beer was drunk during the eulogy in memory of the deceased. His words fell on stony ground as, I fear, will those of Bishop Smith.

The Catholic Church, like all the main churches in Ireland, has become what the Church of England has been for decades – an instrument of social convenience, where people go to celebrate births, marriages and deaths.

The rite is irrelevant to most folk who look simply for a ceremony that reflects their tastes. This view was perfectly illustrated by media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who hired Charlotte Church, then aged 13, to sing at his wedding to Wendi Deng in 1999.

He wanted Pie Jesu, which is part of the Requiem Mass and comes from a poem on Judgment Day by Thomas of Celano, a 13th century Franciscan friar.

The young Charlotte, raised in the Welsh liturgical tradition, pointed out that Pie Jesu was hardly appropriate for a wedding.

The old Rupert, raised in the Australian capitalist tradition, said it was his party and he'd pick the music, thank you very much. "He said he didn't care whether it was a funeral song, or not," recalled Charlotte. "He liked the song and he wanted me to sing it, which I did.''

And that, I suspect, is the message many Catholics will be delivering to Dr Smith. On the matter of eulogies, they may also point out that, if relatives are sometimes a bit gushing, or a tad disrespectful, at least they know the name of the deceased.

We have all attended funerals where it is obvious the man in charge knows nothing about the person he is dispatching, except what he has been told an hour earlier.

Church authority is weak. So I doubt very much if we've seen the last of funerals adorned by Liverpool shirts and golf clubs. And the music will still be as likely to come from Johnny Cash as Johann Sebastian Bach.

Let us, then, leave the last word to Mr Cash and his ballad, The Cremation of Sam McGee. It tells of a man from warm Tennessee, who has spent years "moiling for gold" in frozen Arctic regions.

At his death he makes his mate promise to cremate him. This proves difficult in the icy north, but then the friend finds an abandoned boat on a frozen lake. He pushes Sam's body into a cabin and sets the lot on fire.

After a while, he reckons that "Sam's properly cooked and it's time I looked ... so the door I opened wide."

And there sat Sam looking cold and calm

At the heart of the furnace roar

He wore a smile you could see a mile, And he said, "Please close that door"

It's fine in here, but I greatly fear

You'll let in the cold and storm

Since I left Plumtree down in Tennessee

It's the first time I've been warm.

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