There are two things that are said to be unavoidable in life: death and taxes. While the latter may be tongue in cheek, the former is something that we have many different ways of processing. When a loved one dies, we go through the emotions of grief and sadness, but then remember the good times and look upon those memories with a bittersweetness and happiness. But then there is another sort of dichotomy in the way that we, especially in the Western world, approach the subject of death.
There is the way that we look at death through the lens of the gospel, focusing on that happy day of the Resurrection of the Dead and the life of the world to come, and then through the lens of the secular world which focuses squarely on the here and now while (perhaps) giving a passing mention to a blissful existence somewhere far away from the material world. The time has come for us as Christians, especially Catholic Christians, to reject the lens that the secular world sees through, as this worldview has unfortunately crept into the practice of many of the baptized.
Sons and Daughters of God
What does the Christian believe about death? How do we commemorate the dead once they have passed? Do we take part in the funeral rites of the Church, or do we engage in a celebration of life? Consider what Fr. Paul Scalia said when he opened his homily at the funeral Mass for his father, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a few years ago:
“We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more; a man loved by many, scorned by others; a man known for great controversy, and for great compassion.
“That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.”
When a Christian commemorates the dead, everything is done in view of the life of Christ. Remember that each and every one of us as Christians was baptized into Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Our identity is found in Jesus Christ, who while being the Lord and Savior also becomes our brother as each of us are also adopted sons and daughters of the Father.
Past, Present, and Eternity
As baptism is “the seal of eternal life” (CCC 1274) we give thanks for this great gift in our funeral rites by praising our Lord, and when possible, we celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This takes the focus off of us, the individual, and places the focus back on Christ who came to save not only the deceased the funeral is being said for, but for all the people who are participating in the funeral rites as well. Fr. Scalia continues:
“It is he whom we proclaim: Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried, risen, seated at the right hand of the Father. It is because of him, because of his life, death, and resurrection that we do not mourn as those who have no hope, but in confidence we commend Antonin Scalia to the mercy of God.
“Scripture says, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And that sets a good course for our thoughts and our prayers here today. In effect, we look in three directions: to yesterday, in thanksgiving; to today, in petition; and into eternity with hope.”
It is wonderful to see the Christocentric message of this homily, and it is something that doesn’t make much sense to the secular world. This is why we see celebrations of life becoming much more prominent than funerals throughout our culture, even among Christians. This seepage of secular culture into the lives of baptized Christians has a detrimental effect. As Fr. Scalia notes, the celebration of life only looks backwards. The Christian funeral looks at the present and at the future without passing a judgment on where the deceased’s eternal destination is.
The funeral rites, particularly the Holy Mass, petition the Father to bring the deceased person into eternal beatitude. This is done by offering up the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ specifically for that person, and we continue to have hope that we will see that person again at the end of our earthly lives. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums this up beautifully:
“For the Christian the day of death inaugurates, at the end of his sacramental life, the fulfillment of his new birth begun at Baptism, the definitive ‘conformity’ to ‘the image of the Son’ conferred by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and participation in the feast of the Kingdom which was anticipated in the Eucharist—even if final purifications are still necessary for him in order to be clothed with the nuptial garment.”CCC 1682
Sadly, with a lack of proper catechesis and evangelization in several areas, many souls have not been able to benefit from the funeral rites, as well as the preparation before death that all Christians need before appearing in front of the awesome judgment seat of God. We would do well to look into how these preparations before and after death benefit us, and then remind our brothers and sisters that have fallen away from the Faith that they and their loved ones can profit greatly from the graces Our Lord desires to pour out.
Repairing a Relationship
Perhaps the most troublesome trend in recent years is how Catholic funerals in general are on the decline. This would also lead one to believe that the sacraments of anointing of the sick, confession, and Holy Communion are not being offered immediately before death.
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), one study showed that funerals have seen a precipitous fall in just the last couple of decades. This is concerning, as many of one of the largest generations—the Baby Boomers—have entered retirement age in recent years. The CARA study shows that in 1970 there were nearly 418,000 Catholic funerals. The peak was reached in 2000 with nearly 473,000 funerals. But looking at the current numbers, only about 392,000 Catholic funerals were conducted in 2018. Also, in looking at one large archdiocese, that of St. Paul-Minneapolis, only forty-five to fifty percent of Catholics are being buried in Catholic cemeteries, down from seventy-five to eighty percent of Catholics in 1960.
This is certainly cause for concern, as many pastors today have commented on how the children of even devout Catholics are not having a funeral Mass or Christian burial for their parents. Sometimes these children have fallen out of practice of the Faith themselves and do not know what to do when the time comes, opting for a simple cremation and generalized memorial service. Others have rejected the Church’s traditions and customs and no longer wish to participate in the funeral rites, which can at times be at the behest of their parents themselves. All this shows the need to reach our brothers and sisters who have fallen away from the Faith. At that time right before death, we are afforded many graces where a previously broken relationship with God can be firmly repaired.
Food for the Journey
Sometimes, we mistakenly think that anointing of the sick is the only sacrament given right before death, but as mentioned above, it is one of three. In most cases, this sacrament should be preceded by the sacrament of confession. By confessing our sins in this great sacrament, we prepare ourselves for the two sacraments that follow the so-called “Last Rites”. Of course, the sacrament of anointing of the sick does allow for “the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of Penance” (CCC 1532), such as in the case when the dying person is unconscious or not in a state where they can confess their sins.
Once anointing of the sick has been given, then the viaticum is able to be administered. Viaticum is the name we give to the Eucharist for those that are in the last moments of life. As the Catechism notes:
“Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of ‘passing over’ to the Father, has a particular significance and importance. It is the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection, according to the words of the Lord: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’ The sacrament of Christ once dead and now risen, the Eucharist is here the sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father.”CCC 1524
The Power of Our Prayers
Now that we’ve prepared for death, this brings us back to the funeral rites themselves. As we covered earlier, the funeral Mass which precedes burial is essential in commending the dead to our Lord. At one funeral I was at recently, the First Reading came from the Second Book of Maccabees. The portion that jumped out in particular summed up everything that we were doing that day inside the church:
“Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out…In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.”2 Maccabees 12:42-46
Ultimately, it is Christ who atones for the dead, and since the Mass is both the greatest prayer one can ever make while also being the one and the same sacrifice at Calvary, we also do a holy and pious thing when commemorating the dead at the funeral Mass. Since only God can judge a soul, we do not know if the deceased are already enjoying the beatific vision or still in purgatory. If it is the latter, our prayers will benefit them greatly, as it did for the Maccabean soldiers. If it is the former, our good and gracious Father will certainly apply those prayers, through the Communion of Saints, to those that are especially in need of them.
The Life of the World to Come
Finally, this brings us to the burial. It may be hard for some to understand why the Church insists on burial in a Catholic cemetery, instead opting for a scattering of ashes or placement of them in an urn in someone’s home. The Church has spoken several times in regards to cremation, most recently in 2016. Basically, Catholic cemeteries are sacred ground, and it confirms our Christian belief that persons are a soul/body unity. Far from the body being a mortal coil that the soul escapes from at death, the body is just as integral to the person as is the soul. This is why we will be united with our bodies again at the end of time. The Diocese of Raleigh’s norms for Catholic funerals puts the reasoning very succinctly:
“Burial in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery is a sign of baptismal commitment and gives witness, even in death, to faith in the resurrection of Christ.”
Christ rose from the tomb—body and soul—with a glorified body, as will all Christians that have maintained fellowship with God to the end. The sacred ground of a Catholic cemetery also gives the Christian a dignified final place of rest. Family and friends will be able to easily pray before their loved one, and will not have to worry about what happens with one’s ashes after the subsequent generation dies. When something is consecrated, this means that it is dedicated wholly and entirely to God. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2016 instruction reminds us of this fact:
“The burial of the faithful departed in cemeteries or other sacred places encourages family members and the whole Christian community to pray for and remember the dead, while at the same time fostering the veneration of martyrs and saints.”
This is much harder to accomplish in a back yard, in an urn or much worse, spread over various locations as is common with the scattering of ashes. The Christian burial certainly looks forward to that life of the world to come that we profess in the Nicene Creed.
Ensuring all the Graces
As we can see, the funeral and burial rites for the Catholic Christian encompass much more than just the celebration of life that the secular world affords us. We should not neglect what has been passed down to us through the Church’s wisdom in regards to our treatment of the deceased. After all, the burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy. Mourning the loss of a loved one is always difficult, but our Lord Jesus—as head of the Church—provides us with the solace we need at this time with the sacraments, the Mass, and the joyful expectation of the resurrection.
We surely do a “holy and pious” thing when we ensure that our loved ones are afforded all of the graces that the Lord wishes to pour upon them as they move toward their heavenly homeland.
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Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.