Friday, November 6, 2009

Christian Death: Catholic Practices

I visited three military cemeteries during my years in Italy. The American cemetery at Nettuno includes the graves of those who died during the landings at Anzio, just a few miles away. It is a very elegant memorial, with landscaped gardens and sculptures of marble and bronze.

The Polish cemetery at Monte Cassino honours more than one thousand Poles who died during the Battle of Monte Cassino, around the same time as the Anzio landing. But it is also a monument to the Polish spirit: its central feature is a massive eagle, a powerful symbol of a free Poland during the years of Communist rule.

Although they are otherwise very different places, the gravestones in the American and Polish cemeteries both bear simple inscriptions: name, rank, regiment and dates.

The small Commonwealth cemetery in Rome followed a different policy. The next of kin of the fallen soldiers were permitted to add words to the gravestones of their loved ones. The cemetery was less uniform as a result, but these final tributes were very moving.

Many of them were predictable. I remember particularly one marker on which was written “Fondly remembered by Mum, Dad, and his little dog Peg.”

But there was one tombstone I shall never forget until I’m in my own grave. On it was written “One thing I ask, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord.” This plea for the prayers of passersby not only reflected the deep faith of a family; they are the words of the dying St. Monica to her son St. Augustine, spoken not 30 kilometers away.

For more than 25 years I have tried to remember that young soldier at Mass. Part of it, I suppose, is sentiment; but the deeper reason is simply that this is what Catholics do: we pray for the dead.

We pray for them at every Mass. There are four Eucharistic prayers in common use, plus a number for special Masses. In each you’ll find a remembrance of the dead.

We pray for them when we pray together; every time we said grace in the seminary, we concluded with the traditional words “May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.”

The Catholic funeral itself is primarily an extended prayer for the person who has died. Certainly it celebrates his or her life; and we pray for those who mourn. But the heart of our funeral liturgy is our fervent hope that the one who has died may be purified with the help of our prayers, and hasten to see the face of God.

We pray also at cemeteries. Catholic cemeteries provide special opportunities and places for prayer, but the graves of our loved ones are also a place to pray. From November 1-8 each year, the Church enriches our prayer for the souls in purgatory by granting a plenary indulgence each time we devoutly visit any cemetery and pray.

In a very special way, we pray on All Souls Day for the dead, especially members of our family and friends.

All of these practices are part and parcel of being Catholic. Far more than mere customs, they are expressions of our faith.

I’ve already indicated that we pray for the dead because we believe in the doctrine of purgatory—which the Catechism calls simply “the purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.” (CCC 1031) A more detailed definition of purgatory is the “intermediate state between the death of the righteous and the last judgment, a state during which there is expiation for sins [that are] already forgiven,” readying us for the fullness of eternal life with God.*

In simplest terms, purgatory is heaven’s waiting room. But those who wait are not beyond the reach of our prayers. Death is not the end of life, and it is not the end of our relationship with loved ones who have died. Praying for them—and for all those in purgatory—is a responsibility that flows from our belief in the communion of the saints.

Purgatory is not the only truth that is underscored by Catholic burial practices. Something equally important is symbolized by how we honour our dead, namely faith in the resurrection of the body.

All of us know about Christ’s resurrection, but how many of us know about our own resurrection? This is something distinct from the eternal life of the soul that we should talk about more often, since it’s a consoling doctrine. We believe that “by death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul. Just as Christ is risen and lives forever, so all of us will rise at the last day. (CCC 1016)

This is not some dry dogma: it’s a promise—a promise that on the Last Day, God will grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Christ’s Resurrection. In other words, we get our bodies back from the grave, only we get them back glorified. We don’t know exactly what that means, but surely we can forget about every weakness, disability, limitation, or imperfection.

A glorified body: That's well worth thinking about, especially when our bodies start to fail us.

The Church expresses a preference for burial because it connects us more closely with the Lord whose body was laid to rest as He awaited his Resurrection. The reason that the Church once prohibited cremation was that historically it was chosen by those who wanted to deny the resurrection of the body. The Church now permits cremation, but the law still contains a reminder that it must not be chosen for that reason.

And the reason why the Church prohibits the scattering or dividing-up of cremated remains is precisely her faith in the resurrection of the body. Even cremated remains are to be buried or placed in mausoleum or columbarium so that the person is seen to be awaiting the Last Day and the restoration of his or her body.

When we go to the cemetery for what may seem to be a final farewell, we are expressing our faith that the whole person will rise from the very grave in which the mortal remains are placed.

As I said, all these things express our faith in concrete ways. We let go of them at the risk of losing touch with the deeper realities they symbolize.

The archbishop has asked all priests to give a sermon like this one during the month of November. He is concerned about the way things seem to be going, and so am I. Let me just point out a few of the worrisome things I’ve encountered:

• A desire for a “memorial Mass” instead of a funeral with the body present. Sometimes cost is given as the reason, but when I offer financial help it doesn’t seem to make a difference. This problem sometimes arises when the deceased person is a widow or widower, with children who are distant from the Church. Since those making the arrangements see no value in Catholic traditions, they do not respect them. The solution is an obvious one: Catholics in that situation need to make their wishes known in advance, pre-purchasing a funeral and cemetery plot if needs be.

• Insufficient respect to cremated remains is another issue. It sometimes happens that cremated remains are kept on a shelf by next of kin who do not know the correct thing to do. Or a romantic idea of scattering the remains on a favourite hiking trail replaces their reverent disposition according to Catholic practice.

• Failing to attend funerals is another sign of weakening in our community. Even when we are not all that close to the deceased, attending the funeral is an act of charity and a corporal work of mercy that was once highly prized. We don’t need to miss work all the time to go to funerals, but those who are able should consider how valuable their presence can be.

• Finally, the falling attendance at Mass on All Souls’ Day should worry us all. We had two Masses in the parish on Monday, and between the two I think they attracted about 40 or 50 people other than those who attend daily Mass every day. This suggests to me a loss of community spirit, a weakening of our sense of responsibility—not only to departed family and friends, but also to those who have no-one to pray for them.

If I am getting my point across amidst all this detail, you’ll see how this is about a whole lot more than funeral practices. It’s about what we believe as Catholics, and about how firmly we believe it. It’s about the spirit of the age—including busy-ness, materialism and so on—starting to steal something precious from our Catholic culture that once boldly celebrated death as a beginning rather than an end, as a doorway to the eternal.

When I was younger, Remembrance Day had started to be just another holiday for many Canadians. But slowly we’re rediscovering it as something crucial to our identity; there seems to be a much more lively sense of its importance.

Part of that is, of course, the tragic deaths of Canadian soldiers in our time. But part of it, I think, came from Canadians just plain waking up to the fact that something precious was being taken for granted.

It’s time for Catholics to wake up also—to realize that our prayer for the dead and our respect for their mortal bodies is a deep and precious part of who we are and what we believe. We let go of this only at our peril.

* M. Downey, ed. The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, 27.

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