New York State Funeral Directors Association

Friends gathered around a coffin and offered their best version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” as a eulogy. It was a fine rendition of a popular song, a funeral director told me.

I can picture wide-eyed people peering around and waiting for lightning to strike as a group belts out “Imagine there’s no heaven” during a Mass of Christian Burial inside a Roman Catholic Church.

It’s not just out of place – I think it’s a “Sin.”

A key role helping people honor their dead gives funeral directors a keen view of societal changes – and some of the stories I’ve heard suggest behavior at funerals is worth discussing.

Eulogies hit the news in February after a Roman Catholic official in Canada spelled out the law and said eulogies aren’t an official part of the Mass.

Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J., said in his Decree that "contrary to popular belief, eulogies or words of remembrance are not an official part of Catholic funeral rites, particularly in the context of a funeral liturgy within Mass."

He basically said they should stop but acknowledged "words of remembrance" had become a longstanding practice, and he outlined how those should be conducted.

Funeral directors serve various faith communities and the nonreligious, so they’ve seen it all and they shared some of their memories about interesting happenings at funerals.

Another example was a friend who went up to the pulpit during a funeral and dropped an "F-bomb" telling about how his lost friend was the best [insert curse word here] friend a person could have, right in front of senior citizens and school-aged children.

I think I was actually at that funeral. Or was it the one when the man went to the podium and cracked a beer open to honor his dead Irish friend?

It reminds me of the day I was standing on the sidewalk with my camera, press ID and all, trying to get photos for my story about a homicide victim.

I was across the street from the funeral home, four houses away when a grieving relative, who clearly drank his breakfast from a can, came stumbling off the porch demanding to know ‘why there’s people over there taking pictures.’

I told him others in the region cared about the family but couldn’t attend the service. They should be able to see and read what I could share with them, I said.

It’s important to show outsiders that people in his town show up for their friends and family – the victim wasn’t an unknown, forgotten statistic, I told him.

He agreed and it was all working out well until I scared all three of them away. I tried to get a quote for my story, and that usually gets people walking in the other direction.

Certified Funeral Service Practitioner and NYSFDA past president S. Scott Mason said he hasn't seen eulogies he'd call "horror stories."

But he did see a man pop open a beer at the pulpit during a funeral service.

Typically, Mason said people provide appropriate remarks for a church environment, though some are quite long as some speakers repeat themselves.

"Most of them, I find, are fitting," Mason said.

Mason said he doesn't expect to see immediate change but U.S. states neighboring the Ottawa Diocese might start to see eulogies take place at funeral homes instead.

At one time, Mason said a western-NY Catholic Bishop called for all eulogies to take place at the gravesite instead of at the church - that only lasted a week, he said.

He estimates about half of those attending a funeral service at a church leave after the Mass and don't go to the graveside service.

"In order to have a captive audience, I think the eulogies are prone to be in the church," Mason said.

Regardless of what type of denomination or church, Mason said he always suggests those who plan to speak at a funeral write up what they're going to say beforehand and share it with the faith community leader conducting the service.

Doing so will prevent speakers from voicing thoughts contrary to the beliefs and teachings of that particular church or facility, Mason said.

"There shouldn't be any surprises," Mason said.

Funeral director Kurt M. Eschbach said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks appeared to mark a milestone in society - it was after that tragedy when he began noticing a change in the mindset of people of all faiths and funeral settings.

Eulogies started taking on a funny or witty tone.

It's continued and Eschbach said the edict from a Catholic official doesn't surprise him.

"I can understand where they would say, contextually, some things may or may not belong in a Mass," Eschbach said.

He's heard some things spoken at funerals that typically aren't said in mixed company, including profanity.

"It all comes down to context and content and, just people using a little judgment. I'm not against eulogies, I just think people need to think. A lot of times people don't think," Eschbach said.

I struck out in my effort to get some input from the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese when researching this story - there's a new Bishop getting acquainted with the office so they're probably busy.

I did reach the Rev. Sherri Meyer-Veen, a faith community leader who played a pivotal role helping to organize a response after tropical storms Irene and Lee's devastating visit to the Schoharie Valley in 2011.

Meyer-Veen also spent several years heading up the Capital Region Theological Center, an educational organization that brought clergy and non-clergy together to learn and connect and inspire one another.

Meyer-Veen, who leads the Schoharie Reformed Church, explained that the Catholic Church isn't the only one that has procedures spelled out for funeral services.

"A service of Christian burial, which is one of the titles used for a funeral service in the Reformed Church in America liturgy books, must ultimately be about God and recognizing the grace and hope that we have through God," Meyer-Veen said.

"But for us, that does not mean we cannot personalize it and "eulogize" the deceased."

"My interpretation of the concern is that sometimes after someone dies, in the midst of grief, there is a tendency to put the focus on the deceased and present the best version of that person, and somehow miss the focus God should have," Meyer-Veen said.

The Protestant pastor cautioned me that this is only her interpretation and she hasn't been following this specific issue.

At Schoharie Reformed Church, Meyer-Veen and her husband and co-pastor Michael have a slightly different take on the funeral service.

"What my husband and I, as co-pastors, try to bring to funerals is a focus on God through the eyes of the life of the deceased," Meyer-Veen said.

"We try to thank God for this person's life, thank God that we were privileged to know this person, look for all the ways that we saw God through this person and learned about God from this person's life," Meyer-Veen said.

During the service, Meyer-Veen said they are also "looking to God to comfort us in our grief, as well as look to God's Word to offer us hope to meet us in our time of need."

I'm not sure how this will all iron itself out. Those intent on final services in a Catholic setting might do well to consider a little research.

And despite the pain off loss and its impact on people's behavior, people might want to consider the company they're in when they decide to orate.

People giving thought to their funeral ahead of time might want to ensure they establish an appropriate setting - such as a funeral home - where they can crack open a long, colorful, heartfelt eulogy without offending a priest, grandma or a young child.

Have more questions? Contact a funeral home in your area.