Speak well of the Dead

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

February 10, 2007


            What would you say if you had to preach at the funeral of Anna Nicole Smith?

            Be careful. It’s a mine field out there.

            People say “speak well of the dead.” But that can sometimes be tricky, no matter how carefully you parse your words.

            In 20 years of priesthood I have preached about 300 funerals.  Burying the dead and praying for the dead are our duties in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. But it is not always easy.

            I remember by first funeral vividly. It was, shall we say “awkward”, because I knew nothing of the deceased.  Now I know that you never to go to the funeral without sitting down with the family and getting some background on the dear departed.

            My first funeral was in the midst of the “crack” cocaine epidemic in the late 1980s in Washington, DC. A young woman came to the rectory crying. Her brother had hanged himself. “Would I come preach a few words at the funeral home, even though her brother did not go to church?” “Of course,” I said.

            When I got to the funeral home, there were several young men standing around with big gold chains around their necks. In those days before “bling”, gold chains were the mark of drug gangs.

            The deceased, as it turned out, may not have even committed suicide. His death might have been a reprisal “hit” for failing to pay money owed to higher ups in the drug chain.

            I was brief. I suggested that now might be an opportune time for the assembly to consider a change in profession. Then, sensing that I was not in my element, took my leave. Quickly.

            Some burials are downright odd. More and more we bury people who have only the most tangential connection to the faith. The contents of their coffins often indicate where their hearts really were.  .       Team caps and jerseys are common in coffins. But the new “American religion” is NASCAR.

            A couple of years ago I buried a man as a favor to his girlfriend, who was a recent convert. He wore his NASCAR jacket. He also had a poster of his favorite driver, Dale Ernhart in the casket. He had a decal on the outside of the coffin with Ernhart’s number. Dale had preceded him in death. I guess he figured it improved his chances of meeting him in the next life to show his colors.  

            Folks seem to be afraid of thirst in the after life.

            Recently I buried a guy with a can of his favorite beverage, Coor’s Light, nestled next to his heart.

            Once I buried a guy who enjoyed the occasional shot of whiskey for medicinal purposes only, of course. He disliked the cold, so we put a little miniature of Kentucky bourbon in his right coat pocket, just in case he felt a chill in heaven.

            One of my favorites was a guy who had been “good with numbers” in his life. He went to his maker with a copy of the Daily Racing Form, two lottery tickets and his favorite cue sick. His daughter, counting on his luck to last even in death, had the presence of mind to write down the lotto numbers just before we closed the coffin. “If they hit, up he comes,” she said.

            If only you could tell the whole story at funerals. But you can’t.

            I don’t know what I’d say for Anna Nicole Smith. But I’m sure it could be done, carefully.  

            It’s a mine field out there.