Why bishop who banned family readings at funerals is wrong – Tim Maguire

As a recovering Catholic, my heart goes out to Bishop Joseph Toal; his extraordinary directive that family members should be banned from delivering eulogies and personalised poems at funerals is clearly bonkers, and it’s only a news story because it so obviously flies in the face of reality – Catholic reality.
Bishop of Motherwell, Jospeh Toal. Picture: TSPLBishop of Motherwell, Jospeh Toal. Picture: TSPL
Bishop of Motherwell, Jospeh Toal. Picture: TSPL

I’ve delivered eulogies at two Catholic ceremonies in recent years and, on both occasions, I found the incumbent priests to be unfailingly supportive and helpful.

And while the bishop says “we need to accept that it is what the Church offers us that counts most of all, rather than our own words”, times have long since changed and my Catholic colleagues at the University of Edinburgh Chaplaincy Centre, assure me that ‘user generated content’ is welcomed in all of their ceremonies, even weddings.

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It’s interesting that the church’s official guidance is honoured more in the breach than the observance, but if Catholicism is to survive as even a minority faith, it has to bend with the prevailing wind.

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Scottish Catholic bishop bans family poems and readings from funerals

As a humanist celebrant, my approach is entirely opposite to that of the bishop. As I see it, my role is to speak for the family when they feel unable to speak themselves and while I do most of the talking most of the time, I’m delighted to say that with every passing year, I’ve seen more and more friends and family members who’ve wanted to speak themselves – who could do it better?

As it happens, I have conducted two funerals today. In the first, no fewer than four people joined me in paying tribute to Joyce’s life: in the second, Mark’s uncle Alex delivered a personal tribute while his cousin Chloe sang the REM song, Everybody Hurts. As you might guess, it was incredibly moving.

Speaking at a funeral is not an ordeal, as the bishop says: it’s a privilege, and it can be done by people of all ages. There is no greater honour you can pay your mum or your granny than getting up and reading a poem or telling a story about her life, and – terrifying as it may seem – it’s not as hard as you may think.

All you need to do is take your words into the bathroom, lock the door, and read them to yourself again and again until you stop crying. I saw six people do this today and every one of them did it brilliantly, to honour the person they loved.

Never mind the bishop: when it’s your turn to speak, you know what to do.

Tim Maguire is the honorary Humanist chaplain to the University of Edinburgh and a celebrant with the Caledonian Humanist Association