One of my close friends and his wife recently lost a child – the baby was stillborn at about twenty-four weeks. Amid the grief of that moment, my friend decided to name the child and called his parish pastor to request a Mass be said for him. A number of friends and family attended on a bleak, cold day in early January. In the proper serious, respectful decorum, the priest said the Mass, preached a homily incorporating the story of the archetypal sufferer Job, and offered the sacrifice for the soul of the deceased little one.
It was hard to tell during and after the Mass what my friend and his wife thought of that service – they, quite understandably, looked too distraught to be approached. But a week later, over beers, he told me how much that Mass had meant to him and his family, both as a means of honoring the life of his lost child, and as a means of making some sense of their loss. Witnessing their grief from a distance, I was reminded of something I’ve contemplated ever since I attended, as a Catholic, the evangelical funeral service for my father in 2013: it is imperative that the Catholic Church do death best.
In many respects, Catholicism has a default advantage over other religious traditions, and even more so over secular society. First, in the physical location where we honor the dead. Catholic parishes, even if their post-Vatican II architecture leaves much to be desired, are holy places, simply by virtue of the presence of Jesus in the tabernacle. If the parish has any aesthetic beauty in its architecture, artwork, or interior design, all the better. My father’s funeral, though certainly very respectful, was performed in a carpeted conference room with stackable chairs, reminiscent of rooms at big hotels. There was nothing particularly holy or special about it.
We also have doctrine in our favor. Yes, of course, we should adhere to our teachings about death, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory because we believe them to be true. But even apart from this, they offer far more for us, in terms of contemplation and our own participation, than what is found elsewhere.
We can pray for our dead, accelerating their entrance into Heaven. We can ask our dead, both in Purgatory and Heaven, to pray for us. And we can commune with them in the miracle of the Mass, since the Eucharist is a re-representation not just of Calvary, but of the heavenly banquet, where all God’s people, living and dead, are present.
This is far better than the trite aphorisms “s/he’s in a better place now.” It’s more robust than Protestant beliefs that we’ll simply see our dead loved ones in Heaven (given, of course, that they were saved).
I especially appreciate the prayer cards that are made after a loved one’s death. I keep both of my Catholic grandfathers’ prayer cards as bookmarks to remind me to pray for them. It’s remarkable how often simply seeing those cards not only elicits prayers, but contemplation of their lives, and even my own. We also have votive candles and the offering of Masses for loved ones. Catholicism offers a rich tapestry of honoring our dead loved ones through Christ.
This is not to say that Catholicism can’t go wrong when it comes to death. I was annoyed when I discovered the bulletin for my father’s evangelical funeral called the event a “celebration of life,” though I wasn’t terribly surprised. Yet this has become common even at Catholic funerals. I’ve attended Catholic funerals where no mention of Purgatory or our prayers for the deceased are mentioned, as if to contemplate the continuance of their suffering was simply too painful. I’ve attended funerals, where priests seemed to suggest the dead were definitely already in Heaven, as if they could possibly know that.
One popular prayer card distributed at funerals reads as follows:
Nor speak of me with tears…
But laugh and talk of me…
As though I were beside you.
I loved you so…
‘Twas Heaven here with you.
Such sentiments are insulting both to us and to the dead. Of course, we should grieve the deceased and mourn their loss. Death is a painful, terrible reality of the human condition. Many die at times or in ways that make little sense to us, leaving loved ones not only in mourning but oftentimes in great emotional and financial poverty.
St. Paul declared that with Christ’s resurrection death had been defeated and lost its ultimate sting, not that we wouldn’t still suffer by it. (1 Corinthians 15:55) Moreover, Heaven is not some Hallmark-contrived conception of earthly relationships, but where the faithful departed are going, and where, God willing, we will someday join them. We cheapen both earth and heaven by confusing them.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. The Catholic Church possesses the tools and the doctrines to suffer the tragedy of death in a way that comforts, guides, and restores. When the Church avails itself of such gifts, it does far more than help the grieving with their loss. It honors God, by directing our hearts to worship of Him.
It recognizes that we, to quote St. Paul, are to be pitied above all men if the resurrection of the dead is not true. Yet, in light of the incarnation and resurrection, we have a hope far beyond every secular sentimentality.
Doing death right also preaches truth, both to ourselves, who are desperately in need of it – especially when emotionally vulnerable – and to those who join us in our grief. What better way to preach the Gospel to the unbelieving and unchurched, than to have them witness our belief that, through Christ, death is not the end? What better evangelical tool than a solemn Mass that demonstrates, in Christ, our affection for, and union with our loved ones?
The Catholic Church can do death best. As part of the new evangelization, it should.
*Image: A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet, 1849-50 [Musée d’Orsay, Paris]