The following is from a letter that the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote to the Presbyterian pastor who presided at the funeral of Justice Lewis Powell back in 1998. Scalia refers to “encomiums”—what we Methodists might call eulogies—which, Scalia says, are forbidden at Catholic funerals, in principle if not practice. I didn’t realize until too recently—I say to my shame—that the funerals I presided at were mostly encomiums.
For the past four or five years, however, I’ve shared Scalia’s conviction that the primary purpose of funerals is to proclaim the gospel and our resurrection hope.
Of course, if Scalia is right—and I’m sure he is in this case—I also need to proclaim the gospel at weddings!
Good heavens, if I received any such letter from a sitting Supreme Court justice, I’m afraid my head wouldn’t fit through the door! I hope the Rev. Dr. Goodloe is more humble than I am!
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.