Teaching Our Faith — Remember your death

Dr. Karen Shadle

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.   

One of my favorite Twitter follows is a young nun, a Daughter of St. Paul named Sister Theresa (@pursuedbytruth) with an interesting obsession. Sister Theresa is enamored with death. She is famous for her collection of skulls, which she proudly displays in her office. Her Instagram is peppered with macabre art. She makes rosaries with tiny skull beads. She decorates for Halloween year-round.

If a goth nun is a thing, Sister Theresa is it. Her posts on all topics are witty and insightful, but she is best known for popularizing the hashtag #mementomori, Latin for “remember your death.” Occasionally while scrolling through my feed of news, politics and minutiae, Sister Theresa hits me with one of these:

“You could die tomorrow. Is everything on your to-do list really that important?” #mementomori

“I will die. You will die.” #mementomori

“RYMD = Remember you must die.” #mementomori

“You’re going to die.” #mementomori

“YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.” #mementomori

I’m not the only fan of @pursuedbytruth. With nearly 24,000 followers, Sister Theresa has struck a chord. Far from morbid, her message reminds us that nothing is as important as eternal life with Jesus. She rises above the din of screeching opinions on unimportant things that will be forgotten next week. 

In the opening editorial of this series, Archbishop Kurtz spoke of a harmful cultural pressure to avoid the reality of death.

“If we never think of death and dying,” he wrote, “then we likely spend little time contemplating eternal life.”

In an increasingly secular world, we are fed the illusion that our impact on this world — our “legacy” — is everything. This is arrogance. The final word on death belongs only to God. 

This is why the Catholic funeral rites are not merely — or even mostly — about the life of the person who died. They instead point us to eternal life.

There are actually three separate Catholic funeral rites. First, as explained in the “Order of Christian Funerals,” the Vigil Service is where “the Christian community keeps watch with the family in prayer to the God of mercy and finds strength in Christ’s presence.”

Secondly, at the funeral liturgy, we remember the life and grieve the loss, but even more we give thanks for Christ’s victory over sin and death. In the placing of the white pall and the sprinkling of the coffin, we see the connection between baptism and funeral — in both, we are committed entirely to God.

The prayer at the Final Commendation demonstrates the mixture of sadness and joy: “May our farewell express our affection for her; may it ease our sadness and strengthen our hope. One day we shall joyfully greet her again when the love of Christ, which conquers all things, destroys even death itself.”

Finally, the Rite of Committal at the grave site expresses the communion between heaven and earth as we lay our loved one to rest.

I have been involved in the preparation and celebration of many funerals, and I am reminded of how important that work is. No matter how simple or elaborate, these last rituals are a statement of faith and one of the critical ways that our church reaches out in compassion to families and visitors.

I know that funeral planning can be overwhelming for grieving families. It can be a tremendous gift to loved ones to embrace #mementomori and do some of that work ahead of time. 

I will die. You will die. Funerals are often unexpected, and I believe that every adult, no matter how young or healthy, should do some basic funeral planning. For Catholics, this might include selecting some liturgical hymns that speak to the hope of the resurrection, identifying Scripture readings from the funeral rite that highlight God’s presence in your life, or suggesting some important people who could serve as pall bearers or liturgical ministers. It can be uncomfortable to think about, but preparing some details in advance can make things much smoother during difficult times.

I do not have any skulls lying around my house, but I do keep a funeral planning sheet in a file with other important documents and update it periodically. I imagine that others might like to do something similar but do not know where to begin. Let me suggest a starting place: www.archlou.org/funerals includes some simple forms, outlines of the three funeral rites and information about Catholic funerals that you can print and use for yourself or loved ones. Your parish may also have some excellent resources.

I pray that these can help you prepare beautiful, sacred celebrations that point to our hope in the resurrection.

Dr. Karen Shadle is the Director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of Louisville.

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