Seconds after American Airlines Flight 11 passed overhead, another Franciscan brother ran to Father Mychal Judge’s room in the friary to let him know the World Trade Center was on fire.
The veteran chaplain quickly changed out of his simple brown habit and into his fire-department uniform — pausing only to comb and spray his hair. Judge was heading into danger, but he was also ready to face the cameras. Soon, a photographer captured unforgettable images of firefighters carrying the priest’s body out of the rubble and his name was on the first Ground Zero death certificate.
“While he was ministering to dying firemen, administering the Sacrament of the Sick and Last Rites, Mychal Judge died,” said Father Michael Duffy, at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in New York City.
“… Look how that man died. He was right where the action was, where he always wanted to be. He was praying, because in the ritual for anointing we’re always saying, ‘Jesus come,’ ‘Jesus forgive,’ ‘Jesus save.’ He was talking to God and he was helping someone. Can you honestly think of a better way to die? I think it was beautiful.”
Anyone who wants to know how to deliver a eulogy should study this poignant section of Duffy’s remarks at the funeral of his close friend, said Cyrus Copeland, a former advertising executive who edited “Farewell, Godspeed” and the recent “A Wonderful Life,” two collections of famous eulogies. The new book includes a chapter focusing on Judge and three other men who died on Sept. 11, 2001.
This one anecdote reveals two sides of the same man, mixing humor — the final ritual of comb and hairspray — with a vision of a faithful priest’s willingness to risk his own life to provide comfort to his unique flock.
These days, said Copeland, the loved ones who gather at a funeral want to hear a celebratory toast to a life well lived, just as much or more than they want to face spiritual issues involved in their loss.
“People want honesty,” he said. “They don’t want to hear about the saint that nobody knew. They want to hear about the real Father Mychal, a man who loved the human soul, but also knew a good photo opportunity when he saw one. ? They want to hear about life, more than they want to hear about eternal life. Eulogies today are more human and they are becoming less religious.”Copeland is convinced there are several reasons that the art of the eulogy has changed so radically in recent decades.
For starters, most people alive today have grown up in a video age, surrounded by celebrity news and, more recently, the tightly edited rush of “reality television.” They have seen their share of high-profile funerals. Millions wept as Lord Edward John Spencer spoke at the funeral of his sister, Lady Diana. Many watched as superstar Cher laughed and cried her way through a eulogy for her former husband, Sonny Bono.
Clergy rarely command the spotlight during these rites.
“It’s important to remember that the celebrity memorial service was the first kind to be secularized,” said Copeland. “So you expect to hear about heaven in a eulogy for Father Mychal Judge, with a priest in the pulpit. But eulogies for celebrities like Marilyn Monroe may not mention heaven at all. That’s just the age we live in.”
There’s another practical reason that eulogies have changed so much. Friends and relatives are taking control of the microphone.
In the past, loved ones asked the family’s pastor, rabbi or priest to deliver the eulogy. Today, it would be hard for most people to name such a person. Most modern families are scattered across the nation, divided by career choices and, far too often, broken relationships. Family members may not even share a common faith and they certainly have not spent most of their lives in the same neighborhood in the same city.
Clergy used to deliver about 90 percent of all eulogies. Today, “that number is about 50 percent and it’s falling,” said Copeland.
“So for many people a memorial service simply isn’t a religious event anymore. It offers us a chance to say our good-byes to the dearly departed, but many people no longer think of this event as a bridge between this life and the next.”