About this blogger:
Richard J. Clark is the Director of Music of the Archdiocese of Boston and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. He is also Chapel Organist (Saint Mary’s Chapel) at Boston College. His compositions have been performed worldwide.
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“Come now,” they said, “Thou who wouldst destroy the temple and build it up in three days, rescue Thyself; come down from that cross, if Thou art the Son of God.”
— Gospel of St. Matthew 27:42

Funerals: The Most Challenging Pastoral Responsibility
published 22 March 2019 by Richard J. Clark

E HAVE ALL been there. As pastoral musicians, at times one experiences particularly difficult and emotional funerals. They could include the death of a child or bright promising young adult. There is devastating tragedy and those who battled illness or addiction. Maybe it is a parent of young children. Such funerals can weigh the heavily upon a priest, pastoral staff, and a volunteer bereavement ministry.

Meanwhile, the grieving are not liturgical experts, nor should they be. Also challenging is navigating societal customs and expectations imposed upon Roman Catholic funerals, such as celebrating one’s life or memorializing the deceased with personal preferences. Understandably lost in a sea of grief may be the centrality of Christ and an understanding of praying for the soul of the deceased—a great act of love. The beauty of the Roman Catholic funeral is that we place the Eucharist at the center even in death—especially in death. The focus on Christ in the Funeral Mass is a priceless gem, a lifeline in grief.

But fielding requests for liturgically inappropriate music is the norm. How does one tell the mother who has lost a child that certain music is not appropriate or allowed at the Funeral Mass?

HIS TOPIC DESERVES volumes, but such challenges can be distilled with the great salutary effects a musician’s pastoral presence. Meeting with or speaking directly with a family may have as much healing impact as the particular outcome of the discussion. It requires diplomacy, empathy, patience, experience, and an arsenal of alternate suggestions at hand to gently guide a grieving family toward a funeral Mass that truly places Christ at the center. Ideally, this is accomplished with music that “should console and uplift the grieving while expressing a spirit of hope in the Christian’s share in Christ’s victory over death.” (Order of Christian Funerals #31, emphasis added)

Additionally, there are multiple views on the word “pastoral.” The common perspective is to allow what is less than ideal for reasons of accommodation. But a second is often overlooked: to model and offer the ideal whenever possible. (With funerals, it is often a combination of the two. And both views require a personal presence!) Placing Christ at the center of our sacred music is a pastoral responsibility. It speaks universally regardless of one’s religious inclination or practice. Consciously or not, hope, comfort, and joyful hope of sharing in Christ’s resurrection is a pastoral response. This pastoral response flows though for music that is 1) sacred, 2) beautiful, and 3) universal. (Tra le Sollecitudini §1-2)

Related Article: Ministry of Consolation • A Case for Congregational Singing at Funerals


      * *   In December of 2018, the Archdiocese of Boston released an updated funeral policy that covers a broad range of issues. You can download it here.

Pages 13 and 14 address “Music in the Funeral Mass.” It’s important to note there is truly nothing new here. Why? “The same liturgical norms applied to music at any Mass apply to the Funeral Mass.” I.e., the liturgy documents, e.g., Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy apply for funerals. Notable is §6 which discusses the three judgments for selecting music as indicated in the 2007 US Bishops’ document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (SttL): 1) Pastoral Judgment, 2) Liturgical Judgment, and 3) Musical Judgment.

Also notable is §9 which address the prohibition on secular music (and recorded music in §10):

The request for “favorite songs” of the deceased often result in inappropriate performances of music incapable of bearing the weight liturgy demands. Secular music, even if personally meaningful to the deceased or mourners, is never appropriate for the Sacred Liturgy. (SttL #246) Popular songs, sentimental ethnic music, songs from theater or film, and even non-liturgical or quasi-religious music are never to substitute for music of the funeral liturgy. Furthermore, “music should never be used to memorialize the deceased, but rather to give praise to the Lord, whose Paschal Sacrifice has freed us from the bonds of death.” (SttL #248)


IT IS WISE to develop a good relationship with funeral directors. This will assist in offering appropriate guidance and help to the grieving. To distill a lengthy and dry document, I have offered the following words on “What music is appropriate for a funeral of a loved one?” You can download it here. This also includes some suggested music for the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Feel free to incorporate this or similar language for your parish.

HE CHALLENGE for pastoral musicians at times is to “do it all”: integrate personal compassion and empathy with liturgical and musical expertise, while gently guiding those in grief to the joy and consolation of Christ. One never fully knows the pain and suffering of those who enter the doors of our churches. Our service is an act of love and charity. This is our call.