“We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” — St. Paul, 1 Thessalonians, 4:13-14.
At the funeral of a deceased person, the Church asks the homilist not to give a “eulogy”, which is a kind of lightsome rendition of the person’s life and foibles. Rather, those of us who are still here in this Church, in this world, are to be reminded of the meaning of the life and death of each human being, not excluding our own.
Thinking this admonition over, I am sure my brother, Jerry, would have had no problem with it, though he might be just a bit suspicious that his eldest brother, who somehow managed to outlive him, might, in his parting sermon, just drop the word “horseracing”, his favorite hobby, or speak of the loss of a world class popcorn maker.
Let me say in the beginning also that I have received a number of letters and emails from fellow Jesuits and priests, who offered Mass for Jerry. Many friends and extended-family members expressed their sorrow at hearing of Jerry’s death.
Deborah Hart, the daughter of our Schall cousin, Ed Hart, used to live in Los Gatos, California, where I now live. She recalls, as a little girl, once visiting Jerry’s large family in Aptos. Jerry seemed to her at the time, she wrote, to be the tallest man she ever saw. Her father, Ed, no midget by any means, and Jerry, as one of Ed’s son’s recalled, enjoyed discussing just about anything together.
But I ask myself, what would Jerry have us learn from the death of another human being, including his own death? No doubt he would have said, quite clearly, that the basics of life and death, insofar as we can understand them, are best explained by the faith and in the clear thinking that surrounds its meaning, even when it asks much of us, even our lives. He would also have insisted, in no-nonsense language, that no one goes away from his funeral thinking that it made no ultimate difference what anyone believed or did in this life.
In the end, what is a human life about? Though we are happy to pass through it, it is not about staying alive on this green earth for two or three hundred more years, as a few scientists seem to desire, rather than the some 20 years that Jerry’s son Tommy lived, or the 30 years that our mother Grace was alive, or the 60 that our father Lawrence, or brother Jack lived, or the 80 years to which our step-sisters Jo and Jeanne Louise reached.
No, it is about what St. Ignatius said it was: “Man was created to praise, reverence, and serve God and, by these means, to save his soul.” Nothing more; nothing less. These Ignatian points put things in their proper place. Whatever else we do, if we neglect this one responsibility, we miss everything.
Likewise, in retrospect, Jerry would now point to the words of his marriage vow, “in sickness and in health, for better or worse, till death do us part.” The abiding care and love of his wife, Carol, along with that of Carolyn, Colleen, and her family close-by in Boise—his daughter-in-law, Elaine, and granddaughter, Emily—were there as he was dying. They said a final rosary together with him and he died in peace. When I told this ending to my friend Anne Burleigh, in Kentucky, she simply said: “Well, what else would you expect?”
Much of the rest of the family had checked in in the weeks before Jerry died. Carol and the above present girls made the seemingly unending problems in the last days of his life to be a blessing to all of us. It made it clear that some things we cannot buy–the love of those who love us.
We know that everyone does not have a proper home or a proper love of family to comfort him. This is not always the person’s fault, but often it is. In this matter, I think, my brother Jerry shared the view of his late brother-in-law, Jerome Vertin—another man with whom Jerry used to discuss all things, usually over cribbage, dominos, or poker. As our sister, Jeannie, told me, Jerry Vertin, who died a year ago February, insisted that, if he had to die, he was determined to do so at home. And he did.
In that way, I think, both Jerry’s of our family rest in the same peace of the Lord. This hope is why we see the letters R.I.P. after the names of those who have recently died—from the Latin, “Requiescat in pace–May he rest in peace”—or as the longer form goes: “May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.”
When I told my friend, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski at the Catholic University of America, that my brother had died, he replied with this brief comment: “He and his wife generously shared their lives with their seven children; may he now come in the presence of God Himself, the source of life and being.”
In the presence of God Himself! St. Paul, in speaking of the dead, said to the Thessalonians that God, through Jesus, who died and rose again, will bring those who have fallen asleep, that is, those who have died, along with him, to be in the presence of God the “source of life and being.”
My Jesuit classmate, Ermst Martinez, recalled the words of the Cantata of Johan Sebastian Bach: “God’s time is the very best time. In Him we live, move, and are, so long as He wills. In Him we die at the right time when He wills.”
When I told another friend, Brad Miner, in New York of my brother’s death, his initial question was: “May I presume Jerry died in the faith?” I had to laugh. I suppose in today’s world too many presume not to die in the faith, so it was a legitimate question. I replied that no doubt, if I knew my brother, he not only died in the faith but, on the first chance he got after the Pearly Gates, proceeded to give God, in case He needed it, a pretty good current rundown about what was wrong with popes, bishops, and clergy, including his brother. He would also want to know why it was not fixed immediately.
Miner also recalled his favorite passage on this matter from the book of Revelation: “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” When we speak of those who have “fallen asleep,” who have died, who have passed away, we Christians do not speak without hope. If they die in the Lord, the dead are blessed “from now on” to eternity.
The Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, wrote a haunting poem, inspired by St. Paul, entitled: “Death shall have no dominion.” Death is both an ending and a beginning. The other day in baptizing Logan, Kendal and Dre’s son, Jerry’s great-grandson, I mentioned that one of the things a parent can ask for, when asked in the rite, “What do you wish for this child?” is “eternal life.” All through the Gospel of John, all through the liturgy, we are often reminded that it was for this eternal life that we were created. This is why we can never be fully happy as long as we dwell in this world.
When St. Ambrose’s brother died back in the fourth century, Ambrose gave a famous sermon in which he said that death is both a punishment for sin and a blessing. It is a blessing because we do not have to go on and on deteriorating in this world. Some of us, like Jerry, who died at 84, were given the proverbial “four score years.” One of the Psalms says that we are given “seventy years, eighty if we are strong.”
If we look back on him, as his son Mike was saying to me the other day on the way to baptize his grandson Logan, that his father, for most of his life, was, physically, a very strong man. But in the end he was so thin and weak that he could not rise by himself. In this context, I think of what my friend Denise Bartlett, back in Virginia, who knew Jerry a bit, simply said in her response: “The Resurrection is true; Jerry is at peace.”
Let me close with several final remarks. We are sorry that our sister Norma Jean in Virginia could not be here, but happy that her son Christopher made it. We are pleased to see the many grandsons and granddaughters could be here. It is fitting that the grandsons be pall bearers for their grandfather’s funeral.
After our brother Jack died in 1995, I often heard Jerry say: “I miss Jack.” Jack’s daughter Allison in Phoenix sends her respects and prayers, with those of that side of the family.
When we were young, after our mother died in 1937, our Grandmother Schall took care of us. We used to spend the summer on the farm of Aunt Margaret and Uncle Tom Hart in Northern Iowa. Margaret was a wonderful woman, Dad’s oldest sister. Uncle Tom ran a dairy farm, a place filled with wonder and awe for us town kids when we were small.
Uncle Tom was a good Irish farmer. He used to get the biggest kick out of Jerry. He followed Tom around doing his chores. Jerry kept inquiring of him, “What are you doing, Tom?” Uncle Tom used to imitate that question with much delight. But it also epitomized Jerry’s life. He really did want to know what you were doing, what was going on. And once he found out, he seldom forgot anything. He is now, as we hope, in a place where a lot more things are going on.
Finally, a day or so before Jerry died, I received an e-mail on which there was a brief message, with a single photo attached. The photo was from our cousin Robert Schall, Uncle Bill’s son, in Primgar, Iowa. Bob said that he and his wife happened to be in Pocahontas, the locus of the Shimon and Schall families. Buried there are our grand and great-grandparents on both sides of the family, cousins, aunts, and uncles.
The photo was a shot in the sunshine of a single tombstone in the Shimon plot in the Pocahontas Cemetery, which is called, I think, Calvary Cemetery. On the stone was written, “Grace M. Schall, 1904-1937”. We never really knew our mother. Jerry was only four at the time she died. I suspect that my brother Jerry is busy wanting to know what she, our good father, and brother Jack, have been doing in the meantime, plus figuring out what everything else is about within the Godhead, the “source of life and being.”