Words of Celebration: The Funeral Homily

It is very important that we understand that there is a big difference between a funeral homily and a funeral eulogy. They are similar in importance but different in their purposes in celebrating the life and meaning of the deceased.

Compassion, Meaning, Beauty
Compassion, Meaning, Beauty

The eulogy is what we call “memorializations” in our Funeral Programs. It’s the point in the funeral service at the funeral home, before we depart to the place of committal, whether it be an interment or a cremation, at which friends and loved ones pay special tribute to the life and person of the deceased. It’s the point in our funeral service program where personal words are shared, when special poems are read, where the real meaning of the deceased is shared with others. It can be a moment of smiles and quiet laughter, sighs and tears, acknowledging nods and twinkling eyes. It’s a very emotional part of any funeral service, and a very important part.

The funeral homily is also a very special tribute to the deceased but is addressed, at least in our practice, to the living and the role the deceased will continue to play in their lives. It’s a time to speak of human needs, of spiritual spaces, of meaning, pain, suffering, transformation, and healing.

The homily, which I deliver, is different from the eulogy or eulogies. The homily is a lesson, a teaching that relates the faith tradition or the spirituality of the group to the life of the deceased. The homily relates faith or spirituality to the life of the deceased, and to the lives of the survivors, and teaches its importance in terms of meaning for the survivors.
The eulogy is not really part of the liturgical service but takes place after the liturgical/spiritual part of the service. The eulogy is intended to provide the family and friends with an opportunity to share their thoughts and memories of the deceased.

While the homily centers on faith and spirituality in the deceased’s and the survivor’s life, the eulogies center and focus mainly on the eulogist’s experience of the deceased and the deceased’s life. One person can eulogize or a dozen can eulogize; it’s how the Spirit and emotions move the assembly. The eulogies are informal or as formal as you’d like to make them. We can discuss the form of the eulogies at the family conference or just before the service, if desired. If you open it up to guests, the family might find it very comforting to hear what others have to say or how they knew the deceased. If the eulogists are narrowed down to just one or a couple of select persons, there will be a depth of concentrated reflection but one that does not have the breadth of the open eulogies.

Whether the funeral homily is along the lines of a faith tradition or is “secular” and non-religious, it is always spiritual. It always addresses the deeper, sacred parts of the bereaved. It points in the direction of hope, transformation, healing, and meaning-making. In a sense, the funeral homily whether it’s religious in its tone and message, or “secular”, it’s always therapeutic.

Every one of our funeral homilies, like our funeral programs, is a finely crafted, original piece of writing that is personalized and written to address the specific occasion. We usually meet or communicate with family members to get to know the deceased, the family. We attempt to identify the special moments, the person of the deceased, memorable times, funny moments. We want to address everyone by name who had a special relationship with the deceased, and to put them in the context of a life lived and the meaning, the footprints left by the deceased.

The funeral homily wouldn’t be a funeral homity if it didn’t contain an important lesson, be it spiritual or ethical. In the case of the religious funeral service the spirituality comes from beloved Holy Scripture, the Hebrew Bible with its beautiful Psalms, its ancient wisdom, and the New Testament with its pastoral and Gospel teachings. In the case of the “secular” or “humanistic” homily, we draw from touching poetry, profound literature, nature, and sensibility.

The bottom-line is that the homily teaches hope, healing, and continuing relationship with the deceased in terms of meaning and transformation. The eulogy remembers and focuses on the person of the deceased.

The best way we can illustrate what we mean is by providing some examples of recent homilies we have provided for families experiencing the loss of a loved one. Please click on any of the links below to go to a particular homily that illustrates our points.

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