Each year, the Office for National Statistics, a non-ministerial government department, using birth registration information, publishes a statistical bulletin of the most popular first names for baby boys and girls.
In 2019, Oliver and Olivia remained the most popular names for boys and girls in England and Wales. Interestingly, it was noted that “analysis shows choices in baby names can differ depending on the mother’s age” and that “popular culture continues to influence the baby names landscape”.
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Every January, the parish is required to complete and submit a statistical return to the diocese recording various data relating to the preceding calendar year including, for example, the number of Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, Marriages, Receptions and funerals celebrated, the number of sacramental catechists, the average Mass attendance, etc. These returns build up a picture of parish life within the diocese but also help to produce a current picture of the Catholic Church on a national scale in England and Wales.
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I am always struck by how secular trends feed into various celebrations within a church / faith context. For example, some years ago, first with the publication of the book and subsequently with the production of the film, it seemed that every wedding liturgy had to include a reading from “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, by Louis de Bernieres: “Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your root was so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement …”
In many ways that secular choice seemed to supplant, yet grow out of, two previously very popular – and in some ways similar – readings: the great hymn to love from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 12:31 – 13:13), “Love is always patient and kind … there are three things that last: faith hope and love; and the greatest of these is love”; and the reflection on marriage from “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran, “… let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of heaven dance between you … stand together yet not too near together: for the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow …”
There are always fads, trends and fashions, a rise and fall in popularity.
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But it isn’t baby names or wedding readings that have piqued my interest particularly, rather it is instead the choice of secular music at funeral celebrations.
I have presided at a greater number of funerals than normal over recent months, by far the majority celebrated within the context of a committal at a crematorium. Outside of a Requiem Mass there is, I suppose, a greater freedom to choose from a broader range of musical styles, some of which would, perhaps, not fit so comfortably in a church setting.
Again, as with baby names and wedding readings, there are those songs and pieces of music which are tried and tested as well as current popular trends. Sometimes, however, whatever choice is made, I do wonder whether people pay as much attention to lyrics as they might. One lyric may be truly meaningful, but place that lyric within the context of the whole song and … hmmmm. I always make a point of checking lyrics because they can offer so much inspiration for preaching.
It is a generalisation, of course, but most Catholic parishes will have a sizeable number of parishioners who are Irish or who have Irish antecedents. Then some musical choices seem almost inevitable, and the same choices will be made over and over again. For example:
“The Rose of Tralee” with the line “Mary all smiling was listening to me”
“The Irish Rover” with its references to Cork, Sligo, County Tyrone, Westmeath, Dover, the river Lee and the river Bann
“O Danny Boy” with the line, “’Tis you must go and I must abide” and the longer phrase that as a celebrant (before face-covering was the order of the day) you could see people mouthing, joining in with or hear them humming:
And I am dead, as dead I well may be,
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an ‘Ave’ there for me.
But I shall hear, though soft you tread above me,
And all my grave shall warmer, sweeter be.
And you will bend and tell me that you love me;
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.
There are generational choices: music and songs that were part of people’s lives growing up, or that marked particular events. One such would be “We’ll Meet Again”; others, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Unforgettable (That’s What You Are)”.
One of the older, frequently occurring, dare I say, ‘traditional’ songs is “My Way”. This has always seems to me to be completely inappropriate in any Christian context when God and Resurrection are being thought about. I know why the song is chosen; certain of the lyrics seem to have a pointed relevance:
And now the end is near
So I face the final curtain …
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention …
For what is a man, what has he got
If not himself …
It is one of the most self-focussed, self-centred set of lyrics imaginable; everything is ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’. Where is God in that attitude? If ‘I’ rely on ‘my’ strength alone, what room do I leave in my life for God?
There are also more modern and regularly chosen pieces that, perhaps, have slightly more to say in a Christian context, including:
“Bring Him Home”, from the musical Les Misérables with the lyrics:
God on high
Hear my prayer
In my need
You have always been there …
… Let him rest
Bring him home
“Time To Say Goodbye (Con te partirò)”
Some pieces, which to my ear at least seem very contemporary, are in fact quite dated now as choices, almost falling into the ‘standard’ category, such as “Angels” by Robbie Williams or “Yellow” by Coldplay which have both been around for more than twenty years.
Anyway, what initially triggered this little mental meander was the frequency with which one particular song has been chosen during the whole lock-down funeral experience since last March.
Many families have mentioned the intention to ‘have something in church’ once restrictions disappear or become less restrictive on numbers attending. Many families, too, lament the impossibility of organising a ‘wake’ in what they thought would have been a fitting way to celebrate their departed loved one in a social context of family, friends and acquaintances.
I wonder whether this particular choice has something to do with that sense of things being unfinished or incomplete.
Here's to the ones that we got
Cheers to the wish you were here, but you're not
'Cause the drinks bring back all the memories
Of everything we've been through
Toast to the ones here today
Toast to the ones that we lost on the way
'Cause the drinks bring back all the memories
And the memories bring back, memories bring back you …
… Everybody hurts sometimes
Everybody hurts someday, ayy-ayy
But everything gon' be alright
Go and raise a glass and say, ayy …
(“Memories”, Maroon 5, 2019)
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Let us remember and continue to pray for all those we may have loved and lost during the last year, family, friends and fellow parishioners. Let us commit into God’s safekeeping all those who have died throughout the world during the coronavirus pandemic, thinking of those who may die today, their relatives and friends. May all the dead rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.
A list of parishioners who died in 2020 can be found on the Prayer page of this website.