This series of teaching editorials explores death and dying and how the Church provides pastoral care for those facing death and for their families before and after they have died.
No one wants to talk about death in our American culture. At least that is what many anthropologists, who study human behavior, are telling us. The web is full of articles on the silence that surrounds death in our culture. Many point out that it was not always like this, nor is it like this in other parts of the world. I recall in the 1950s when my grandmother died, our family had the visitation with the coffin right in our living room at home. We were accustomed to being with family members as they aged, since generations lived together or nearby. We lived closer to life and, as death approached, we were closer too.
Some say that the root of this aversion to death emerges from many factors. One big one is the fact that specialized medicine removes persons who are dying from their families, often for good medical reasons. Another is that with these medical advances, which we all welcome, we want to live as long as we can. Death is almost seen as a failure of medicine rather than an inevitable part of life. Major industries have developed to produce skin creams and promote cosmetic surgery to make us look forever young, and this feeds into the illusion that death can be avoided or denied.
In the midst of these challenges of our culture, November arrives with its traditional celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. During this time, we have the opportunity to pause and remember our loved ones who have died, to visit their burial places and to pray that they might have eternal life. If we never think of death and dying, then we likely spend little time contemplating eternal life.
Each Sunday in the Creed, we proclaim, “I believe in life everlasting.” Jesus spoke of eternal life and of His Father’s desire that all be saved. He also spoke of judgment at the end of time. Traditionally the church has meditated on the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. We seek to follow Jesus and live holy lives and, through his grace, pray for eternal happiness with him in heaven. We also pray for those who have died that they might be purified (the doctrine of purgatory) and enter into eternal life. We are told that our prayers can assist those in the process of purification (All Souls’ Day) and that those already in heaven can assist us with their prayers (All Saints Day). In this series of teaching editorials, Cathy Reynolds will reflect upon the rich insights of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
Thanks be to God that our liturgy has a rich and very healthy way of leading us into a meditation on death and eternal life. In this series, Dr. Karen Shadle will teach us about the beautiful tapestry of the funeral liturgy.
There is a growing pastoral challenge. The American distaste for anything surrounding death tempts families not to prepare well. There is also that temptation to have the burial of a loved one in the quickest way possible. Even liturgies can fall victim to simply celebrating the life of the person who died and barely acknowledging death and a life to come. In this series of teaching editorials, Father Paul Scaglione will discuss how the Church provides pastoral care for families facing death, and Javier Fajardo will present the consoling ministry provided by our Catholic cemeteries.
The rich teaching of eternal life is clear, but like most teaching it takes more effort in modern American culture to comprehend and integrate into our lives. We appreciate life eternal and the risen Lord best if we spend time at the foot of the cross. Easter needs Good Friday or it remains superficial.
My mom’s holy card at the time of her burial depicted an icon of Jesus lifted from the grave with hands outstretched and the faithful on both sides hanging on for dear life…literally. When I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and celebrated Mass at the entrance of the tomb from which Jesus burst forth on the first Easter morning, I was just a few feet from Golgotha, where he had died on the cross. In every age, saints have meditated on their own death – not to be morbid, but to face the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection – so they might prepare well for their own death and rise with Christ to new life.
Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D.
Archbishop of Louisville