While Byzantine Christianity prays for our dead in the early spring (on “soul Saturdays” during Lent chiefly), Latin Christianity has for many centuries kept November as the month of the dead. This is a month, in the northern hemisphere, when the world conspires to present us with copious evidence of decay and death. The trees, previously ablaze in all their splendor, have sent their leaves in a rapid descent to the earth where we too will some day decompose, leaving only skeletal branches against a sky that is itself black longer in the mornings, and again sooner in the afternoon, and often morbidly grey in between.
It is also preceded by October, which annually commemorates the death of the first of my two sisters, who died when I was nineteen. For nearly thirty years since then, autumn has felt inexorably like a season of mourning. Though I confess to wanting just a few more days of sunshine and warmth as summer slips into autumn, I know the cycle is to be welcomed as providential. For if the Lord who crowns the year with His goodness did not proffer us these annual reminders of dying and rising, would we not be even more in denial about our elementary vulnerability and mortality?
After my sister died, I learned that there is no more fatuous phrase in all of the English language than that of “closure”, which one obtains after “moving on” from a death. One may move through death, but the wounds it opens never close. We are ever after vulnerable to their sharp throb and silent ache swiftly returning, sometimes in such utterly unforeseen circumstances we can never quite understand why. We may and often must shroud the gaps and gashes of our hearts with careful concealments, some healthy and some perhaps less so. But the wounds remain, and the task of a healthy and intelligent body will be to tend them regularly.
But (to alter Gregory of Nazianzus) what is not acknowledged is not healed by the sacramental and liturgical ointments of our anointed and risen Redeemer’s body, which we call the Church. Much of Christianity today in the West, alas, seems not only to not seek healing, but to deny there are any wounds in the first place. In this, the Church is just slavishly imitating the culture at large, where talk of death, never popular or prevalent, has been increasingly rendered ever more obscure by vexatious euphemisms. The indisputably worst of these is “passed”: “Uncle Joe passed last week” one often hears, to which one always wants to retort “Passed what? Wind? A kidney stone? His driver’s exam?”
But it is the disappearance of practices around death that is infinitely worse even than this vacuous talk. Funerals are increasingly disappearing, replaced by “celebration of life” services, or no service at all. A priest friend of mine, ordained some forty years now, told me the most depressing phone call he had a few years back was from a man on the other side of the country saying that his mother, with a vague connection to my friend’s parish, had died nearby and would he go to the funeral home to “take care of things” by saying a prayer over her body before it was shoved into the oven? The son, a wealthy and robust man in his fifties, could not be bothered to fly across the country to organize, much less attend, any obsequies for his mother.
Some years back I gave a lecture at Baylor University on changing funerary practices. I reviewed a great deal of critical scholarly literature from Western theologians critiquing their own tradition, especially in the revised rite of funerals in the Latin Church, which, scholars agree, in many ways—psychologically and theologically—fail to help people in a moment of acute suffering, and fail also to pass on clearly and unambiguously the faith of the Church. In particular, revised Western funerals fail to impart virtually anything of the basic seven-fold eschatological message of the Church reiterated in a letter from Rome in 1979. As a result, confusion reigns about so much of death, including the increasingly popular metaphysical mumbo-jumbo one sees on social media after a death has been posted: people writing in comments about how your Aunt Sally has now “become an angel” or how the excruciating death of that little boy mowed down in gang violence last week means “heaven has gained another angel.”
Instead of using funerals as a time to pray for the pardon and remission of the sins of the dead, and to ask for mercy for them and us who are left to grieve, and to do all this in clear and open acknowledgement of our painful but hopeful weeping, the average funeral today becomes little else than a canonization of good old Uncle Joe, whose partying in heaven is marked here below by festive vestments of white and by multiple eulogies whose faux bonhomie is more painful to listen to than the ululating of a thousand widows.
It is, admittedly, a fine pastoral art to preach and celebrate a funeral that avoids at least two major pitfalls: either ranting about hellfire and breathing judgmental threats of damnation or idiotically skipping past the pain into a forced cheerfulness premised upon the psychologically destructive theology that because Christ is risen we must not grieve. This latter approach is by far the more common today, aided and encouraged by a culture that expects people to “get back to normal” as soon as possible. The average person in this country today is allowed a scant three to five days off work at large corporate and governmental agencies, and this is only for immediate family members.
The Church, by setting aside November, is not so stingy. We must take all of this month, and as much of the rest of the year as we need, to remember our beloved dead. As we should by now have learned, a failure to mourn openly and regularly, which is healthy and necessary, means we set ourselves up for melancholia, which is neither. Absent, delayed, or denied grief will seek expressions in often unhealthy ways—anger, addictions, and anxiety, among others.
In concrete terms, let us use the many treasures of our patrimony not only to grieve but to pray for our beloved dead. Let us recover the regular practice of offering requiem liturgies on their anniversary days—either the days of their birth and death, at least. Let those who pray the liturgy of the hours make frequent use of the office of the dead on those days also. Family rosaries or other prayers can be said on the same occasions. Favorite foods can be prepared and eaten at home as well.
But in the communion of charity which is the Church, we are enjoined to pray for all souls. At risk of advertising my piety Pharisee-like, I have found that one simple way of doing this is to arrive sometimes early at my kids’ school to pick them up at day’s end, and to use those extra few minutes in the old cemetery next door to wander the rows of graves (some nearly two centuries old) saying a Hail Mary in front of each.
From my fellow Ukrainian Catholics in Canada I have also been greatly edified by two practices: filling in graves by hand at a funeral and having picnics in cemeteries on days of the dead, whether personal or liturgical days. One of the most memorable funerals of my life was the wife of a dear priest friend of mine who died very young of cancer. On a hot August day, the men silently shared a half-dozen shovels as we each took a spell filling in the grave before a silent tap on the shoulder from someone behind us allowed us a break as fresh hands took over for a bit. It was hot and dusty work, but in a strangely unexpected way it was very deeply edifying.
Edifying in an even more physically basic fashion is to have a picnic in a cemetery, which may seem the height of weirdness to some, but it was a wonderfully jovial and human thing to do. After the prescribed panachyda was prayed (a short memorial office in the Byzantine tradition) we relaxed by sharing drinks and food while recounting stories of those whose graves became makeshift tables for our libations. Our solemn prayers and tears were mingled with laughter and shots of vodka as we feasted in anticipation of the wedding feast of the Lamb, where there will one day be neither mourning nor dying, but all of us reunited around the table of eternity.
In addition to all this, we need seriously to reconsider how to recover other long-lost practices. Some years ago I interviewed Deacon Mark Barna and his wife Elizabeth about their hugely helpful little book A Christian Ending: a Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition (Divine Ascent Press, 2011). It is full of practical wisdom for what families and parishes can do to reclaim death from the professionals and to show our love and faith to people in the most concrete ways at the most vulnerable and painful times of our life. In an age when “green burials” are becoming all the rage, the book reminds us that regular families were regularly accustomed to burying their beloved dead from home or the parish without pumping them full of carcinogens and encasing them in grossly overpriced bauble-bedecked boxes and concrete vaults.
All this was once common Christian practice. Why can it not become so again, at least in part, at least in some areas? It was, and is, healthier (for us and the earth), cheaper, and a lot simpler to wash, dress, and enshroud a body ourselves before laying it out at home or in the church for people to visit and pray over. Some Catholic monasteries, and some Orthodox ones also, still do this in parts of the world. Some Jewish and Muslim communities do likewise. But as the Barnas showed, most Christians rarely do, which is a failure on our part to practice one of the corporal acts of mercy enjoined upon Catholics.
As Catholics move into the “month’s mind” of November, leading to that season of prayer, fasting, and eschatological anticipation known as Advent, let us spend these blessed weeks on prayer and works of mourning both for ourselves and all those whom, in Newman’s felicitous phrase, we have “loved long since, and lost awhile.”
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