I recently had what’s called a revision total knee replacement (arthroplasty). In 2012, I’d had a partial knee replacement on the medial (inside) part of my right knee, which, frankly, had not felt especially “fixed” from the start. Anyway, it recently failed (i.e., it broke apart).
The problem is a combination of injury and arthritis: a passion for intense sport-based exercise and the ravages of aging. The surgery lasted three hours, and the surgeon was very proud of his work. I’ll likely die before this new knee fails, since the assumed lifespan of the implanted metal and plastic parts should last to or beyond my 110th birthday. And, frankly, were it to “fail” before then, I’m not at all certain I’d want to go through the surgical and rehabilitation process again – or that the medical professionals would recommend I do so.
But that’s not what I want to write about, although that experience and recent cancer treatments have forced me to become more focused on two things: preparing for death and becoming a saint.
A general outline of details is below, but I’ve made all the necessary specific arrangements for my funeral and interment. And it seems to me a thing good and proper to do for every Catholic of a certain age. As St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) wrote:
[I]f you believe that you must die, that there is an eternity, that you can die only once, and that if you then err your error will be forever, irreparable, why do you not resolve to begin at this moment, to do all in your power to secure a good death?
I’d begun thinking about this since I was first diagnosed with heart failure (followed shortly thereafter by treatment for different cancers in consecutive years), but all I’d actually done until now is create a computer file – an initial outline of my wishes to guide my wife should I predecease her, or for my sons should the responsibility fall to them.
That was a start. But it’s not enough.
But as I lay in the hospital bed overnight after the knee replacement, an interesting memory washed over me – of the bedtime prayer I said as a child:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
St. Alphonsus, author of Preparation for Death , might approve. Or not, since it’s a Protestant prayer. The author is said to be Sir George Wheeler (1651-1724), an earlier contemporary of Liguori. Wheeler was a High-Church Anglican. Not Catholic but also not anti-Catholic. Not that it matters.
Among my earliest memories is my mother sitting at my bedside and teaching me to say the prayer – that and the little trick with fingers: lacing them together palms and elbows down (to make a kind of double fist) and saying,
“Here is the church . . .”
[then lifting and touching together the tops of both pointer fingers and saying . . .]
“Here is the steeple . . .”
[then spreading the thumbs and saying . . .]
“Open the doors . . .”
[then turning the joined hands palms up and wiggling the fingers saying . . .]
“And see all the people.”
Silly. But it may have been a way to soothe the wide-eyed worry of a little boy who’d just prayed to be taken to heaven if he died in the night. It certainly got me thinking about last things.
As I wrote in a column  here about my second cancer diagnosis in 2019, “It’s always Ash Wednesday.”
To live is to die, but to live joyously, fully is not to dwell on “doom,” on death. And yet, how could there be true joy if at the end of it all we imagine only. . .nothing. Of course, I can write those words, but nobody can really imagine nothing. When I was a 4-year-old, I sat on the fire escape of our apartment and thought: “What if there were nothing?” (I’m sure I didn’t use the subjunctive then.) And then: “I’m here.” I stared into the slate-gray sky and knew or sensed that “nothing” is the one thing that cannot be.
St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote (Preparation for Death): “It is folly not to think of death. It is greater folly to think of it, and not prepare for it.”
So now, all the preparations are in place: Where my funeral will be held; who will be the homilist; who will concelebrate; where the urn will come from; and where my ashes will be interred.
I know some readers will be disappointed or even shocked to learn that I’ve chosen cremation. My response to that? Joan of Arc. And she is just one of many Catholic saints and martyrs whose bodies were burned, and their ashes scattered – their persecutors’ mockery of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. In Joan’s case, what was left of her body after burning was cast into France’s Seine River and, perhaps, carried out into the English Channel.
God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” and I think we may suppose He knew every single coded molecule that became Jeremiah, and this is true of Joan too. When the resurrection comes, God will call Joan and us, the dead and the living, and every molecule of every body will be restored (and for the blessed, perfected), whether it’s from within a 21st-century lead-lined box in a carefully curated cemetery or ashes spread and submerged across 300-million miles of ocean 300 years ago.
Mind you, ashes should never be scattered. Mine will likely be in an urn made by the Trappists of New Melleray Abbey in Iowa, and will then reside in the columbarium at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City.
Done and done, although I’ll have to get back to you on becoming a saint.
*Image: Joan of Arc by Charles Jean Desvergnes, 1920-21 [Notre-Dame de Paris]
You may also enjoy:
Robert Royal’s Did Jesus Conquer Death? 
Filipe Avillez’s On the Wisdom of Taking Children to Funerals