funerals

Funerals for Bush 41 pulled strong images of heaven into America's public square

Funerals for Bush 41 pulled strong images of heaven into America's public square

During 60 years of friendship, George H.W. Bush went on countless trips with James Baker III, his secretary of state and a confidant so close that America's 41st president liked to call him his "little brother."

On the last day of Bush's life, Baker checked on his friend. The result was an exchange Baker shared several times, including on CNN's "State of the Union."

"Hey, Bake, where are we going today?", asked Bush, alert after days of struggle.

"Well, Jefe, we're going to heaven," Baker replied.

"Good. That's where I want to go," said Bush.

Bush died about 12 hours later, surrounded by family and friends, including his pastor, the Rev. Russell J. Levenson Jr. It was a time for prayers and good-byes, and the priest shared some details in sermons during both the state funeral in Washington, D.C., and the final rites at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, the Bush family's home parish for 50 years.

"It was a beautiful end. It was a beautiful beginning. … The president so loved his church -- he loved the Episcopal Church. He so loved our great nation. He so loved you, his friends. He so loved every member of his family," said Levenson, at Washington National Cathedral.

"But he was so ready to go to heaven. … My hunch is heaven, as perfect as it must be, just got a bit kinder and gentler." The priest turned and addressed the coffin, blending faith with language from Bush's days as a Navy pilot: "Mr. President, mission complete. Well done, good and faithful servant. Welcome to your eternal home, where ceiling and visibility are unlimited and life goes on forever."

There is nothing unusual about priests discussing heaven during funerals. After all, the Pew Research Center's massive "religious landscape" study a few years ago indicated that 72 percent of Americans believe in a place "where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded," and the number is 82 percent for those affiliated with a religious tradition.

Father Paul Scalia keeps funeral focus on Jesus of Nazareth and prayers for his father, a sinner

Father Paul Scalia keeps funeral focus on Jesus of Nazareth and prayers for his father, a sinner

Catholics who faithfully go to Confession are unusual these days, with one study linked to Georgetown University noting that a mere 2 percent of American Catholics "regularly" confess their sins to a priest. 

Local odds being what they were, Father Paul Scalia of Arlington, Va., once learned that he had come very close to facing one faithful Catholic whose confession would have -- literally -- hit close to home. That Saturday evening he heard a unique complaint from his father, Justice Antonin Scalia. 

The issue "was not that I'd been hearing confessions, but that he'd found himself in my confessional line. And he quickly departed it," said Father Scalia, during his father's nearly two-hour funeral Mass (video here). "As he put it later, 'Like heck if I'm confessing to you!' The feeling was mutual." 

This anecdote drew laughter in the massive Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. But even this personal story was part of the priest's focus on eternal issues, rather than details of the life and lengthy U.S. Supreme Court career of his famous father.

After all, Antonin Scalia had made his feelings crystal clear -- writing to the Presbyterian minister who performed the 1998 funeral of Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. -- that funerals should contain real sermons, not touchy-feely eulogies. 

Is there a dark side to all of those fun funerals?

For centuries, religious believers in many cultures have held solemn funeral rites that were then followed by social events that were often called "wakes." 

The funeral was the funeral and the wake was the wake, and people rarely confused their traditional religious rituals with the often-festive events that followed, noted blogger Chad Louis Bird, a former Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary professor who is best known as a poet and hymn composer. 

But something strange happened in American culture in the past decade or two: Someone decided that it was a good idea to have fun funerals. 

"Our culture is anxious to avoid dealing with death. It seems that the goal is to keep your head in the sand and not have to face what has happened to your loved one and to your family," said Bird, in a telephone interview. 

Sermons by Billy and Obama

Both men faced rows of loved ones still wrapped in grief after shocking tragedies. Both men quoted the Psalms. Both concluded with visions of eternal life and heavenly reunions. Both referred to familiar songs that offered comfort.

Facing those gathered in Beckley, W.Va., to mourn the loss of 29 miners, President Barack Obama asked them to remember a rhythm and blues classic -- "Lean on Me" -- that had its roots in coal country life.

Songwriter Bill Withers wrote: "Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow. ... Lean on me, when you're not strong and I'll be your friend. I'll help you carry on, for it won't be long 'til I'm gonna need somebody to lean on."

The Rev. Billy Graham was more daring at the 1995 prayer service for the 168 victims of the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The world's most famous evangelist even quoted an explicitly Christian hymn.

"The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose I will not, I will not desert to its foes," claims "How Firm a Foundation," in its final verse. "That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I'll never, no, never, no, never forsake!"

There is no way to know if Obama and Graham talked about heaven, hell and eulogies when they held their first face-to-face meeting, just a few hours before the president traveled to West Virginia.

Reporters were not allowed to witness the 30-minute session, the kind of confidential meeting that Graham has held with every president since Harry Truman. Obama was the first to meet with the evangelical statesman at his log home on a mountainside above Montreat, N.C.

Graham's career has been defined as much by these moments of civil religion as by the decades of crusades in which he preached to millions. Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters that Graham is a "treasure to our country" and that, while the 91-year-old preacher has "some of the creaks that come with advancing age," he remains as "sharp as he ever was."

Some details of the meeting were relayed to the Associated Press by the Rev. Franklin Graham, the outspoken heir to his father's ministry. Billy Graham gave Obama two Bibles, one for him and one for First Lady Michelle Obama. The evangelist prayed for America and for wisdom for the president. Obama offered a prayer thanking God for Graham's life and ministry.

Franklin Graham's presence guaranteed the discussion of at least one sensitive subject, since the Army recently rescinded his invitation to speak at a Pentagon prayer service. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the younger Graham called Islam an "evil and wicked religion" and he still insists that Muslims need to know that Jesus died for their sins.

When they discussed the Pentagon's approach to religion, Franklin Graham said that Obama promised "he would look into it."

That's the kind of theological terrain that presidents strive to avoid. Thus, Obama remained safely vague when using God language in West Virginia. If there is comfort in the wake of the mine tragedy, he said, "it can, perhaps, be found by seeking the face of God, who quiets our troubled minds, a God who mends our broken hearts, a God who eases our mourning souls."

Obama concluded with an appeal for safer mines, blending spiritual concerns into the politics of rock and coal.

"We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. They are with the Lord now," he said. "Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy; to do what must do, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground. ... We have to lean on one another, and look out for one another, and love one another, and pray for one another."

In Oklahoma City, Graham had closed with an openly evangelistic appeal, the kind of spiritual warning he has urgently voiced for decades.

"This event," he said, "reminds us of the brevity and uncertainty of life. It reminds us that we never know when we are going to be taken. I doubt if even one of those who went to that building to work or to go to the children's place ever dreamed that that was their last day on earth. That is why we each need to face our own spiritual need and commit ourselves to God."

Why eulogies have changed

Seconds after American Airlines Flight 11 passed overhead, another Franciscan brother ran to Father Mychal Judge's room in the friary to let him know the World Trade Center was on fire.

The veteran chaplain quickly changed out of his simple brown habit and into his fire-department uniform -- pausing only to comb and spray his hair. Judge was heading into danger, but he was also ready to face the cameras. Soon, a photographer captured unforgettable images of firefighters carrying the priest's body out of the rubble and his name was on the first Ground Zero death certificate.

"While he was ministering to dying firemen, administering the Sacrament of the Sick and Last Rites, Mychal Judge died," said Father Michael Duffy, at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in New York City.

"... Look how that man died. He was right where the action was, where he always wanted to be. He was praying, because in the ritual for anointing we're always saying, 'Jesus come,' 'Jesus forgive,' 'Jesus save.' He was talking to God and he was helping someone. Can you honestly think of a better way to die? I think it was beautiful."

Anyone who wants to know how to deliver a eulogy should study this poignant section of Duffy's remarks at the funeral of his close friend, said Cyrus Copeland, a former advertising executive who edited "Farewell, Godspeed" and the recent "A Wonderful Life," two collections of famous eulogies. The new book includes a chapter focusing on Judge and three other men who died on Sept. 11, 2001.

This one anecdote reveals two sides of the same man, mixing humor -- the final ritual of comb and hairspray -- with a vision of a faithful priest's willingness to risk his own life to provide comfort to his unique flock.

These days, said Copeland, the loved ones who gather at a funeral want to hear a celebratory toast to a life well lived, just as much or more than they want to face spiritual issues involved in their loss.

"People want honesty," he said. "They don't want to hear about the saint that nobody knew. They want to hear about the real Father Mychal, a man who loved the human soul, but also knew a good photo opportunity when he saw one. ? They want to hear about life, more than they want to hear about eternal life. Eulogies today are more human and they are becoming less religious."

Copeland is convinced there are several reasons that the art of the eulogy has changed so radically in recent decades.

For starters, most people alive today have grown up in a video age, surrounded by celebrity news and, more recently, the tightly edited rush of "reality television." They have seen their share of high-profile funerals. Millions wept as Lord Edward John Spencer spoke at the funeral of his sister, Lady Diana. Many watched as superstar Cher laughed and cried her way through a eulogy for her former husband, Sonny Bono.

Clergy rarely command the spotlight during these rites.

"It's important to remember that the celebrity memorial service was the first kind to be secularized," said Copeland. "So you expect to hear about heaven in a eulogy for Father Mychal Judge, with a priest in the pulpit. But eulogies for celebrities like Marilyn Monroe may not mention heaven at all. That's just the age we live in."

There's another practical reason that eulogies have changed so much. Friends and relatives are taking control of the microphone.

In the past, loved ones asked the family's pastor, rabbi or priest to deliver the eulogy. Today, it would be hard for most people to name such a person. Most modern families are scattered across the nation, divided by career choices and, far too often, broken relationships. Family members may not even share a common faith and they certainly have not spent most of their lives in the same neighborhood in the same city.

Clergy used to deliver about 90 percent of all eulogies. Today, "that number is about 50 percent and it's falling," said Copeland.

"So for many people a memorial service simply isn't a religious event anymore. It offers us a chance to say our good-byes to the dearly departed, but many people no longer think of this event as a bridge between this life and the next."