A Catholic funeral makes us present to Christ. CNS photo/Rick Wilking, Reuters

Death makes us present to Christ

  • October 31, 2012

A funeral draws us into eternal life that Jesus’ death made possible

A friend described a memorial service he’d attended. He was directed to a room with a video screen to watch images of the service happening elsewhere.

Increasingly, memorials occur with little or no physical connection to the dead. Last year, I searched the rooms of a funeral parlour for several minutes before realizing there was no body at the wake.

This approach to death may be enlightened and compassionate. We “celebrate” the dead person’s life; we remember their aliveness, and all that made them dear to us. We look around or over death as though it weren’t there. We make a toast, and carry on. It’s a determinedly cheery approach. Is it a Christian approach?

Varied, even competing, views of death abound. It’s seen as the final terminus of physical life, a passage to God, an illusion, a cure for suffering, the thing we all fear most, a glorious destiny, a means of punishment. Our attitudes to death speak about our attitudes to life.

Oftentimes memorials tell us “do not mourn,” “do not weep.” St. Paul, on the contrary, doesn’t tell us not to grieve, but urges, “do not grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). What is the Christian hope? That we’ll remember the good things of our beloved deceased? That we won’t have to mourn? That they didn’t really die? That we won’t die, or won’t suffer in dying?

An atheist I know says of death: “they close the lid, and that’s it.” He at least has the courage to confront nothingness. Such courage may have a better chance of moving God than pretending death doesn’t exist, or ignoring the questions and discomforts it presents. Entering the unknown requires a true letting-go. Jesus’ friends didn’t learn to forget Him after His death; they didn’t find closure. Following His lead on the cross, they surrendered into it, and this opened everything, including their hearts. They learned, and told us, that love is stronger than death.

The Gospels go to great lengths to show that Jesus really died. He bled. He suffered. His breath stopped. His body was broken. It was taken lifeless from the cross, and placed in a tomb. It was really there. He was dead. Like Lazarus before Him, so long dead that the smell of death hung around. Whatever the Gospels are about, they haven’t been passed down through 2,000 years to help us think death away.

Nor to seek death as an antidote — or a tool in the tool kit of physicians, or of the state. Death isn’t an answer to suffering, to mental illness, to sin or crime or disability or imperfection. It’s an implacable, irrevocable reality that applies equally to us all. Because sin entered the world, through human hearts and actions, therefore we are broken and divided by death. Death, remorseless and anguish-producing, is a witness of the rupture between ourselves and God, by which we also become enemies of one another.

Confronted by His friend’s death, Jesus was moved to tears, not to celebrating Lazarus’ life or telling the dead man’s sisters to look for their brother in the next room. He didn’t treat death as a balm or pretence. He acted against it, thereby foreshadowing the real Good News: that when He Himself lay dead in the tomb, it couldn’t hold Him. He was so alive that death itself broke.

We don’t get around death, but through it. Though it may be painful, we need to contemplate death — together, not alone; with Christ, not without Him; with all the helps the Church can give.

Especially in November, the Catholic Church invites us to spend time with the dead, and to stand at the edge of death. We don’t stand there alone: the veil between the living and the dead is thin. This truth is echoed in the back-to-back solemnity of All Saints and commemoration of All Souls which usher us into November. We pray to and for the dead, inviting them to be present to us. C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce) suggests the reason we can’t perceive the dead isn’t because they’re insubstantial, like ghosts. It’s because they are super-substantial, so solid, so alive, that we seem insubstantial to them. They died; death is real. More real, more solid than death is love.

There is a communion between people through death. Universally, a funeral or memorial service includes eating and drinking. Food is the way we live communion. It helps us receive Eucharist, and deepen our communion with the One who has died, risen and broken the lock of death.

A Catholic funeral isn’t a celebration of a dead person’s life. It’s a eucharistic service which makes us present to Christ. It draws us into the eternal life-with-God that Christ makes possible. This is our hope, that in our surrender to death — the little deaths-to-self, the deaths of persons we know and letting-go into our own death — we meet Christ who conquered death.
(Marrocco can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca.)