If you aren’t nerdy enough to read The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and also the appendices to the books, then you aren’t nerdy enough. I’m kidding, of course, but it is true that the appendices contain some great stuff, including one of the most poignant death scenes I know of in literature.
One of the heroes of the story, King Aragorn, is dying after a long and a good life. His wife Arwen is with him as he’s dying, but she doesn’t really understand what’s going on because she is an elf, and in the story elves are an immortal race of beings. So, Aragorn explains to her that his death is not the absolutely bleak doom it seems to be:
“In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold, we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell.”
On the Commemoration of All Souls Day, and throughout the month of November, we do well to consider together what this “more than memory” is and how we get there. Death is the one thing every sane person must agree is a certainty of life. They say “death and taxes,” but there are some people who (wrongly) evade their taxes. No one escapes death. And yet many of us seem to avoid thinking very much about death, about what it really is, about that to which death leads, and about what all of this means for how we ought to live now.
What is death? It’s a great mystery. But by “mystery,” we do not mean it is just a question mark or a riddle. To the Christian, a mystery is always something true, but it is also something we know only partially. We can grow in our knowledge of a mystery, and we should, but there will always be a mix of light and shadow, some things revealed to us, and some things concealed.
What we know most clearly, perhaps, is how we feel about death. We feel scared to think about our own deaths or the future deaths of people we love, and we feel great sorrow when someone we love has already died. We might go along okay for a while not thinking of death, but then from time-to-time we come to a moment when the reality of death just hits us, and we can’t ignore it any more. We shouldn’t run away from these moments, but see them as gifts given by God so that we can understand not only death, but life.
How does understanding death help us to understand life? For centuries, many have said that knowing we will die helps us appreciate life, to treasure the gift of our lives each day. I don’t believe the Greek poet Homer wrote the following lines, but the 2004 film Troy, loosely based on Homer’s Iliad, places them on the lips of the hero, Achilles:
I’ll tell you a secret.
Something they don’t teach you in your temple.
The gods envy us.
They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed.
There’s something to this view, of course. The very fact of death tells us that our lives are limited, and when something is limited we tend to appreciate it more than if we have an infinite amount of it. Each day is truly a gift.
But there is another and more important way that understanding death is really about understanding life. The readings for the Mass of All Souls point the way for us, from the very first words of the First Reading, from the Book of Wisdom: “The souls of the just are in the hand of God.” When at death the spiritual dimension of who we are, our souls, separate from our bodies, they do not simply float off “somewhere.” When we die we meet God; we are held in His hand.
The Responsorial Psalm for the Mass of All Souls, Psalm 23, is the passage read in practically every Western movie I’ve ever seen when cowboys bury their comrades on the trail. In one Western I saw several years ago, a cowboy called upon to think of a scripture didn’t have a Bible, and he couldn’t think of anything except that there was a scripture “about them green pastures.” Psalm 23 is so popular because it so beautifully reminds us that we are not lost, in life or in death, unless we choose to be lost. Jesus is our Good Shepherd, Who leads us through “the dark valley” to Himself, the Light of the World and of the world to come.
Saint Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Romans that the security we have in the face of death is not of our own doing. Saint Paul writes, “While we were still helpless, (Christ) died at the appointed time for the ungodly…while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” We are “justified by his Blood,” and “saved through him from the wrath” of sin and death. We have been “reconciled to God through the death of his Son.” Any confidence we have about our beloved dead, any confidence we have as we consider our own future deaths, comes from our faith in the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Eucharist, given when someone is dying, is called viaticum, or “food for the journey,” precisely because it makes present to us the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, Whom we take into ourselves so that we can share in His victory over death.
Here we have a point of connection with the Gospel for the Mass of All Souls. Just before Jesus speaks about the Eucharist as the Bread of Life in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, He makes clear that it is His mission to bring the gift of salvation, that He came to do the Father’s will, and not to lose anyone who “sees the Son and believes in him.” Again, our total reliance upon Jesus for any hope we have for life after death is made perfectly clear in this passage.
It is worth thinking about all of this in the context of our funeral rituals. A generation or two ago, when a Catholic died a Requiem Mass was offered for the repose of the person’s soul. Black vestments were worn by the priest, most of the congregation would wear black, and the music was very ancient and written in the form of prayers that pleaded with God for mercy. These rites inspired a great deal of awe in the people. It was all very solemn, and made a powerful impact on those who participated in these rites. Today, our Funeral Mass is most often celebrated with white vestments—though I should point out that the priest even today has the option to wear black or violet—and we typically sing comforting hymns such as “Be Not Afraid.” So which approach was correct?
It seems reasonable to affirm that there is much that is correct in either approach, and that there can also be distortions to either. We can become too fearful and sorrowful in the face of death, on the one hand, and we can become too casual and superficial in dealing with death, on the other hand. What the Church’s funeral rites call for is hope without presumption, confidence in the saving power of God without a flippant sense that heaven is the automatic destination for every person. We need to stand in awe before God, but also to know that we are His beloved children.
Today, the more common problem is in our tendency to become presumptuous, to see going to heaven as automatic regardless of how a person lived or whether he believed in Jesus Christ or not. I’m not saying we can never speak as if a deceased family member or friend was in heaven, but I do notice that this is almost the only way people talk about those who have died.
Just one problem with that approach is that you strip away any motivation to pray for the dead. If your Aunt Petunia is already in heaven, then why pray for her? She already has exactly what we would be praying for! I certainly hope that when I die you will pray for me! I hope no one holds back their prayers out of a sense that I’ve already gone to heaven.
The vast majority of those who go to heaven do so by way of Purgatory, where God prepares us to meet Him face-to-face. Very few of us have died in such a state of holiness that we are perfectly ready to meet the all-holy God, and so we need purification, to become totally detached from sin. Our prayers help those who have died through this experience of purification, and so praying for the dead is an essential act of Christian charity, of love for them.
There is also a trend today towards becoming very casual, and kind of superficial, about how we react to death. A few years ago, I read an article about a funeral home in Michigan offering drive-through visitation for those, I suppose, who would find the inconvenience of parking the car and walking into the funeral home to be just too much.
We Catholics have not gone that far in allowing convenience to trump every other consideration, but things are moving in that direction. Shorter times of visitation, celebrating the Rite of Christian Burial Outside of Mass when a Mass could be offered, and a general sense that we “don’t want to make a fuss” over death are becoming more and more common today.
If there is one time in our lives to “make a fuss,” it’s when our lives come to an end! It is our duty and privilege to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for our beloved dead, to pray for them and spiritually accompany them into the hands of our heavenly Father. Jesus has won eternal life for us, but He gives us a role to play in helping each other receive this gift and say “yes” to it. The funeral vigil, Mass, and committal all play a role in commending a soul to God and helping us remember the reason for our hope and consolation.
Finally, the Christian understanding of death tells us something about how we are to live today. If in our dying we seek to be in union with Jesus, so that we might share in His rising to new life, then it is also the case that we need to live in union with Jesus now. We cannot presume that union with Christ will be established at death, if we did not stay faithful to the union with Him forged when we were baptized.
Remember the Gospel: “everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life” (emphasis added). We are not on this earth just to do our own thing. And if we do our own thing, ignoring or rejecting Jesus, during our lives, what do we think will happen when we come before Him after we die?
It would be foolish, even tragic, to test God through presumption. As Christ becomes present in the Bread of Life, it is essential that we reaffirm our faith in Him, that we are ready to live in union with Him, and that we hope to die in union with Him, so that we can share His life forever.
And for those who have already died, the Church never ceases praying, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
(This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Detroit Catholic website.)
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