Catholic Activity: Preparing for Heaven
The topic of death, preparing for it, discussing it openly in the family is usually considered "taboo" in our times. But as Catholics, we have to remember that our time on earth is ONLY preparation for heaven. The author Therese Mueller gives examples on how to have fruitful discussions on preparation for death with family members.
As members of a family, we — the Mueller's, I mean—would rather spend our final hours of this life at home. It has always seemed so normal to meet our Christian death surrounded by those we love and who know us. After all, they have shared our lives and they know our wishes for our last hour. They have prayed with us a lifetime and know our favorite prayers, hymns, psalms. The home is still the best place to die in—if God so wills.
Are we in our homes prepared in case of death? Have we openly talked together about death? (We spend years, and fortunes, in preparing for less decisive hours; but to think of death, to "plan" for death and to take our plans in prayer before God: this is often called morbid!)
And then, do we have the necessary things on hand: a standing crucifix, two blessed candles in sturdy holders, the linens for the bedside table and for covering the person to receive holy communion? Certainly anything can be used in an emergency: sheets, table cloths, napkin. But think of the inevitable bewilderment and confusion. A little preparation would contribute much consolation to all concerned. My mother had put aside the most delicately embroidered doily "for our Lord to rest on when he comes to me the last time." Though we were deprived of using it for many a festive and joyful occasion, we had to honor her wish. For our own family we decided that there should be a set of linen put aside to serve for the reception of that one sacrament, which is meant to be administered in the home. How should or could these linens be decorated? Could they carry in word and picture a message to the sick as well as to those in good health? We talked about this around the family table. The agreement was that the picture of Jonas being thrown from the whale would most forcibly describe the powerlessness and temporariness of death: as the whale had to give up the prophet and even had to carry him to his destination, so death would have to give us up right into the hands of God. And as to the most fitting prayer, we chose from the offertory the lines: "In the spirit of humility and with contrite heart, let us be received, O Lord."
Many months later we worked out an acceptable design and dignified and understandable at a glance. This we embroidered on a linen table cloth, so that the picture would hang down toward the bedside. The cloth was fittingly finished during Lent and made a thought-provoking Easter present for the family, a symbol of death conquered, of resurrection, of surrender into God's hand. More difficult was the design for the smaller cloth to be laid over the sick person. "Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commit my spirit" was to be the framework. How can this be pictured simply, strongly? A year or two went by until Providence took over. We chanced upon a French art magazine which showed an old Egyptian devotional gift: a large hand carries a small human figure lying down, arms crossed over the breasts, somewhat like a mummy. This symbol of surrender was easily translated into embroidery and many an ardent and humble prayer went into the stitching. Now we have in one handy, well-marked box all we need and hope to use in case of a sick call and Last Anointing; plus an instruction sheet telling how to prepare the table, and the booklet "God's Healing" (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn.). This part of preparing for death can be done in every family, and while it might look like taking care of the material side, it is really an extended and intensive spiritual preparation for every member of the family.
"Mother, what would I wear in my coffin?" This question startled us one day into some lengthy discussions. We covered quite a lot of ground. Going from grandmother's shroud (which was the first piece in her hope chest), then passing over the habits of third order members which may be worn in the coffin, and arriving at the baptismal garments of the children (which were designed with death in mind), we came up with some good thoughts and good resolutions. For example, there is the big difference between "lying in state" and "being laid to rest." And the big difference between funeral parlors and home wakes. There is the untimely pomp of satin- and velvet-lined coffins, etc. And the massive flower displays that were better given simply as tokens of recognition and love during lifetime! Finally, there is the strange and expensive attire lavished on a dead body just for appearance's sake.
We realized that the shroud was actually a replica of the white garment received in Baptism. It represents the soul clothed in the bright raiment of sanctifying grace, related to the First Communion dress as well as to the bridal attire and the alb of the priest; it is a symbol of the raiment of glory with which God will clothe those who return the baptismal garment of grace without stain at the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps another family project to be thought over and prayed over . . .
The death of a Christian is holy and must be kept holy with a great care and reverence and a sense of responsibility. Each person has a right to his own death, the death that fits his life. There is danger that death may be regimented and uniformed by medicine, injections and nursing rules. There is no greater service we can give to a person than to assist him in his last hour. It is most revealing that the rites for Anointing begin with prayers for the house "and all that live therein," so that special graces are at the disposal of the people assisting the one who is sick and in danger. To "make one's peace with God" is part of a good death, and often the nearest and dearest are able to assist, if they can overcome their own grief. And if I am just "assigned to the case"—it certainly is that God has put me there to be the good Samaritan, who proved himself the nearest and dearest to the man in need.
Preparing for death includes becoming acquainted and familiar with the Last Rites and prayers for the dying. Once a year, in November, we pray through them, offering them for our own death. Also, whenever we hear of a relative, friend or neighbor in his last illness, we add the prayers for the dying to our family prayer. To our great consolation we have found out that these prayers, while majestic and solemn, lift us up by the faith and hope they express; and more than once we felt, through the mounting urgency with which we called on God and the angels and all saints, the unmistakable joy of salvation and eternal glory—the heritage of all who die in the Lord.
Activity Source: Little Sacraments, The: Liturgy for the Home by Therese Mueller, Conception Abbey Press, Conception, Missouri, 1961