I came across this shortly after I heard news of Justice Scalia’s death. Whatever you think of his judicial philosophy or decisions, this is worth reading. It’s a letter he wrote to the presiding clergyman after the funeral in 1998 of Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, which Justice Scalia attended with other members of the Supreme Court. (The bold text is mine):
Supreme Court of the United States
Washington, D. C. 20543
JUSTICE ANTONIN SCALIA
September 1, 1998
Dr. James C. Goodloe
Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church
1627 Monument Avenue
Richmond, Virginia 23220-2925
Dear Dr. Goodloe:
I looked for you unsuccessfully at the luncheon following the funeral yesterday. I wanted to tell you how reverent and inspiring I found the service that you conducted.
In my aging years, I have attended so many funerals of prominent people that I consider myself a connoisseur of the genre. When the deceased and his family are nonbelievers, of course, there is not much to be said except praise for the departed who is no more. But even in Christian services conducted for deceased Christians, I am surprised at how often eulogy is the centerpiece of the service, rather than (as it was in your church) the Resurrection of Christ, and the eternal life which follows from that. I am told that, in Roman Catholic canon law, encomiums at funeral Masses are not permitted—though if that is the rule, I have never seen it observed except in the breach. I have always thought there is much to be said for such a prohibition, not only because it spares from embarrassment or dissembling those of us about whom little good can truthfully be said, but also because, even when the deceased was an admirable person—indeed, especially when the deceased was an admirable person—praise for his virtues can cause us to forget that we are praying for, and giving thanks for, God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner. (My goodness, that seems more like a Presbyterian thought than a Catholic one!)
Perhaps the clergymen who conduct relatively secular services are moved by a desire not to offend the nonbelievers in attendance—whose numbers tend to increase in proportion to the prominence of the deceased. What a great mistake. Weddings and funerals (but especially funerals) are the principal occasions left in modern America when you can preach the Good News not just to the faithful, but to those who have never really heard it.
Many thanks, Dr. Goodloe, for a service that did honor to Lewis and homage to God. It was a privilege to sit with your congregation. Best regards.
Justice Scalia is correct that the Roman Catholic Funeral Rite prohibits eulogies at the Mass – and also right that this rule is widely ignored. (Funerals for priests are among the worst in this regard.) And he is, from my point of view, that eulogies detract from the proper focus of the funeral: God’s mercy toward us, and the unmerited promise of eternal life God offers. He says it far more eloquently than I could; that’s why I reproduced his letter here. May he, and all the faithful departed, rest in peace and rise in glory. Until next week, peace.