Friday, April 24, 2015

Flashback Friday: Johnny Carson and the meaning of death

A DETAIL FROM MICHELANGELO'S THE LAST JUDGMENT, 1536-1541
When I originally wrote this piece, in the days following the death of Johnny Carson in 2005, I had on in the background a Carson marathon that was running on the Game Show Network.  There were some wonderful moments of Johnny on What’s My Line?, I’ve Got a Secret, To Tell The Truth, and Password; some very funny stuff, and it seemed the right time for some final reflections on Carson and the meaning of death.

Terry Teachout wrote earlier about reader reaction to his Carson piece; what he (and I) found surprising was the vehemence with which so many people wrote, in effect saying that if you didn’t praise Johnny as the greatest of all time, you were in some way damning him. Ultimately, I don’t think this has as much to do with Carson as it does our misunderstanding of the meaning of life, and of death, and this seems as good a time as any for instruction on the proper Catholic attitude about death.

This is true particularly especially when one looks at what the modern Catholic funeral has become. Leon Suprenant of Catholics United for the Faith puts it well, saying “the dominant mindset is that the deceased assuredly is ‘in a better place,’ and thus the funeral rite itself should be nothing other than a mini-canonization.” Neil Cavuto, in one of his more rare missteps, was highly critical of a decision by the Archdiocese of Newark to ban eulogies at Catholic funerals. Neil calls himself a practicing Catholic, but his comments make it clear that he’s not always a comprehending Catholic. (In Cavuto’s defense, he wrote this column in 2003; perhaps he’s corrected himself since then). The Catholic writer James Hitchcock, a man eminently more qualified than Neil Cavuto to address the subject, comments on this tendency:

This compulsory praise includes a compulsory insistence that the deceased is already in heaven, indeed has always been one of God's favorite people, probably now sitting in that privileged place that Jesus rebuked his apostles for coveting.

This, Hitchcock goes on to say, completely misses the point of the Catholic funeral:

The old funeral liturgy was somber, with black vestments and mournful chant, the most shattering of which was the "Dies Irae" ("day of wrath"), reminding people that they would have to answer for themselves on that day "when even the just will need intercession". Since the Second Vatican Council, the emphasis of the service changed to hope, and white vestments, symbolic of the Resurrection, are now always used.

But hope is not the same as presumption, which is precisely what some funerals now are. Another joke tells of the man who died at the same time as Mother Teresa of Calcutta and found himself a few places behind her at the Pearly Gates. He is complacent that he will be admitted until he hears Saint Peter exclaim sternly, "But Teresa, you could have done a lot more."

Hitchcock touches on what I think is one of the major reasons why Catholics have lost touch with the true meaning of the funeral Mass: the elimination of the Dias Irae as a mandatory part of the liturgy. As Hitchcock says, it was a reminder of the high stakes that accompany us in life, and in death. When this was eliminated from the liturgy, as part of the new Mass following Vatican II, this somber realization dimmed as well.

I have an interesting piece on the Dias Irae that I’d planned to hold on to until November 2, All Soul’s Day, when it would have made a nice meditation (maybe when that date comes around I’ll use it again). In the meantime, it seems appropriate to introduce it. It’s from the transcript of the television commentary of Fr. Leonard Hurley during the funeral Mass for John F. Kennedy. (Back in the days of Latin, televised Masses often featured a commentator, who would explain to the viewers what was going on during different parts of the Mass.) At this point in the liturgy Cardinal Cushing, the celebrant, is reciting the Dias Irae:

This hymn is a Christian meditation on the meaning of death. A non-Catholic has described this magnificent hymn as solitary in its excellence. The secret of its irresistible power lies in the awful grandeur of the theme. Intense earnestness and pathos of a poet, the simple majesty and the solemn music of its language, the stately meter, the triple rhythm, all combine to produce an overwhelming effect, as if we heard the final crash of the universe, the commotion of the openings of graves, the trumpet of the archangels summoning the living and the dead. And so the King of tremendous majesty, seated on the throne of justice and mercy, and ready to dispense everlasting life or everlasting woe.

And there you have it, perhaps not quite in a nutshell, but beautifully stated nonetheless. The funeral Mass is not intended for the pleasure of the mourners, nor is it meant to transmit “good feelings” to one and all. What these people really want is a wake, when they can sit around and laugh and cry and reminisce about the good times and the bad. The wake is for the living; the primary beneficiary of the Mass is, or at least should be, the deceased, with the living to receive comfort from it in a secondary way, the hope and faith in that justice and mercy of which Fr. Hurley speaks.  There are some wonderful settings of the Dias Irae in classical music, Mozart and Verdi among the most famous.  However, I think to appreciate the richness of it, the rhyme and meter, it's best to hear it in Gregorian chant, as is the case here:  (For an English translation, you can go here.)


The Catholic funeral Mass signifies the most intimate of connections between man and Creator. It is a plea for compassion and understanding. It is the priest, on behalf of the deceased, throwing himself at the mercy of God. It really is, when you think about it, a beautiful thing, one that never fails to stir me when I do think about it. For when we die we go to our particular judgment, our chance to meet with God, and to receive sentence. To think that this beautiful Mass, with the prayers for the dead offered by the priest and people, exists to mediate for us with God, is a comforting thought indeed.

Instead, the feel-good funeral, understandable though it may be, winds up a true disservice to the dead. As Hitchcock puts it,

Mother Teresa herself would have insisted that she could have done a lot more. It is one of the characteristics of saints that they are acutely aware of their sins, of how completely they depend on God's mercy, of how little they "deserve" at God's hands. But modern sensibilities have subtly changed hope -- that a merciful God will grant me salvation -- into arrogant certainty…

Even if the eulogist is aware of the deceased's perhaps considerable faults, he dare not hint that the dearly departed is not in heaven. An unfortunate result is that it forestalls people's praying for the dead, which used to be regarded as a solemn duty.

What we ultimately wind up with, as in Neil Cavuto’s case, are people who mean well, who think they’re doing the right thing, without realizing that the Church has a reason for everything it teaches. That rationale doesn’t come lightly, as if someone woke up one morning and for no apparent reason decided, “I think I’ll ban eulogies today.” It usually comes out of considerable thought, and for good reason. But these do-gooders put an emphasis on feeling, rather than reason. They rely on those feelings to dictate their actions, and while those actions may be innocent enough, at the very least they minimize the amount of good that can be done.

My own instructions upon death include a stipulation that there be no eulogy at the funeral Mass, that the celebrant wears black vestments, and that the Dias Irae be done. (At the parish to which we now belong, I've got a pretty good chance of having my wish fulfilled, since that's the only kind of funeral Mass they do.)  The way I look at it, this is my last shot to have the Mass my way; I’m going to make sure I get the full benefit of it.  After all, unless I die a martyr's death, I'm going to need all the prayers I can get.  So shall we all.  And in the powerful intercessory prayer that is the Requiem, the Mass for the Dead, we can rest assured we will get it.

Revised from the original publication, January 29, 2005

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