November 1, 2004
She Loved Life. (And Bourbon. And Bawdy Jokes.); New Eulogies, at Odds With Church Tradition
By ANTHONY RAMIREZ
When did the eulogy shift from respectful remembrance of the dearly departed to a Friars-style roast?
Was it when Earl Spencer railed against the royal family and the tabloid press during the funeral for his sister Diana, the Princess of Wales, in 1997? Was it when Madonna, in the same year, eulogized a longtime friend by beginning, ''I slept in Gianni Versace's bed''?
No, says Cyrus M. Copeland, editor of ''Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time'' (Harmony Books, 2003). Blame Cher, at least in part.
Sonny Bono, the pop singer who became a Republican congressman, died in a skiing accident in 1998. At the televised funeral, Cher, his former wife and singing partner, stood up in St. Theresa Catholic Church in Palm Springs, Calif., to share her memories.
She recalled that one of the first things Sonny ever told her ''was that he was a descendant of Napoleon.''
''Now you have to realize,'' Cher continued, ''he was talking to a girl who thought that Mount Rushmore was a natural phenomenon.''
Mr. Copeland said that it was a ''very personal, unelegiac but still poignant remembrance.'' And it gave other eulogizers ideas.
Tomorrow is All Souls' Day, a day once set aside for remembering the souls in purgatory, tainted by venial sin and not yet ready for heaven. The prayers of the faithful, it was thought, could help them.
But the belief in purgatory is in decline, said James Hitchcock, an expert on church history at St. Louis University who has written on how eulogies have become more secular. Most souls seem to go to heaven, today's more casual Christian believes, so it seems fine to eulogize the deceased's fondness for bourbon or worse, Dr. Hitchcock said.
''In fact,'' said Dr. Hitchcock, ''at a majority of the Catholic funerals I've attended in the last 10 years, some mention has been made of drinking habits. It seems to be done to signal that the deceased, now in heaven, was human, like the rest of us.''
The Roman Catholic Church, tired of hearing stories like the one in New Jersey in which an uncle was remembered for taking his nephew to a brothel, has taken the sternest action against freewheeling eulogies. In January 2003, Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark ordered priests in his archdiocese to stop the laity from giving eulogies at funeral Masses.
Being denied the opportunity to give a eulogy recently did not discourage one grieving family in New Jersey. Their church would not allow anyone other than a clergyman to eulogize their loved one.
After the funeral Mass, the pallbearers carried the casket out to the sidewalk and stopped. Rented loudspeakers came out and several family members shared their memories of the deceased as the priest inside fumed.
''I couldn't believe it, it was pushing the envelope,'' said the funeral director who witnessed the insurgent eulogies. The funeral director did not want his name used or the rebel parishioners identified, for fear of hurting future business.
''I'm from a different generation,'' said the funeral director, a Catholic. ''Something has changed.''
But it is not just Catholics. Funeral directors report that Protestants, Jews, and Muslims and Hindus who have adopted American funeral customs have had problems with nontraditional eulogies.
In August, Jaye Zimet, a lesbian author from Brooklyn, died without warning at 43. She had always led an unconventional life. (For years, she colored her hair purple.) About 300 friends and relatives, including children, gathered in a Brooklyn funeral home for a traditional Jewish service. There, Ms. Zimet's friend Tory Klose stood to say a few words.
''Jaye grew comfortable with her sexuality,'' Ms. Klose said, ''and showed many of us that life in the fresh air was vastly preferable to that in the closet.''
Ms. Klose, executive director of copy editing at Viking Books, then described a shopping trip led by Ms. Zimet to a store called ''Toys in Babeland.''
Stephanie A. Schwartz, a journal editor and Ms. Zimet's partner, was stunned but also amused at the mention of sex paraphernalia. ''We were all laughing,'' she recalled. ''Laughing a lot. And I remember thinking: Should we be laughing?''
Mark Goldberg, the Orthodox rabbi who presided over the service, found Ms. Klose's eulogy unusual, to say the least.
''Everyone has a very special soul,'' said Rabbi Goldberg, ''and that's what I shared with them. Did I smile when I said that this was a first for me? Yes.''
The rabbi added, ''I've never heard any words like that, whether eulogy or not.''
Eulogies surfaced as a public issue in the American Catholic Church after Archbishop Myers, responding to a growing number of complaints by his parish priests about inappropriate remembrances, banned lay eulogies. This angered many rank-and-file Catholics.
Archbishop Myers wrote in a February 2003 letter that ''the Christian funeral is not a celebration of the life of the person who has died.'' The liturgical books, he said, are clear: ''There should never be a eulogy of any kind'' in church.
The archbishop continued, ''We can all recall reflections that have been inspiring, and others that have been disjointed or embarrassing.'' And eulogies by friends and family, he said, could still be delivered outside the church, at the funeral home or at the graveside.
The Newark ban was suspended until July 2003 so priests could explain it to their parishioners. It is now back in force. (The Archdiocese of New York permits one brief eulogy at a funeral after Holy Communion.)
Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Newark archdiocese, traces part of the trend toward expansive eulogies to a 1990 change in church rules that allowed ''a few words of remembrance'' during Mass.
''But a couple of moments became long treatises,'' said Mr. Goodness, ''and all of a sudden people were talking about how what they really wanted to say could be best expressed in the words of Dr. Dre,'' the hip-hop performer.
But if televised eulogies, like Cher's, had their effect, perhaps the greatest influence was Sept. 11, 2001, especially in the New York metropolitan region, said Tom Kearns, president of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.
''Many people were disenfranchised with respect to even having a funeral,'' said Mr. Kearns, 65, whose family owns four funeral homes in Queens and Nassau County. ''Twenty-six hundred people were never found, and their families were looking for something to celebrate their life.
''You had a lot of memorial services in churches and the clergy found it difficult to say, 'No, you can't do a eulogy,''' Mr. Kearns added. ''Once that happened, it empowered other people.''
Still, the controversy over eulogies must be kept in perspective, he said. ''One pastor told me he doesn't mind the eulogies in church,'' he said, ''even though some are not quite appropriate.
'''You need to minister to people where they are,' the pastor said, 'and not in some perfect setting.'''