Fact of life: After death, the skin turns black and oozes cadaverine. As Jesus approached the tomb of Lazarus, Martha warned: “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” (Jn. 11:39)
We are ambivalent about death. Jesus wept when Lazarus died (cf. Jn. 11-1-45). St. Paul fearlessly taunted: “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor. 15-55) The ambivalence extends to Genesis. The Tree of Life guarantees eternal sustenance to Adam and Eve in their joyful obedience. God removes the Tree after Original Sin bringing death—both as a punishment for sin and as a gift to limit temporal punishment. Before the Fall, death was unnatural; after the Fall, death became an unnatural part of nature, to coin an oxymoron.
God promises to shatter our ambivalence through the Prophet Ezekiel: “You shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.” (Ez. 37:12-13)
In the face of death, we usually experience deep sorrow. But we often welcome death: after a long and happy life—or an extended or painful illness—ending peacefully or mercifully.
We love life. We protect the body as a Temple of the Holy Spirit. We care for our bodies with good nutrition; mothers teach their children to brush and floss their teeth (and they always obey); dads tell the kids to get out of the house for some fresh air; we expect doctors to heal our infirmities, extend our lives, and control discomfort and pain.
Catholics habitually acknowledge death. The crucifix hangs in every Catholic sanctuary. We recite the “Hail Mary” that concludes: “…pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” The Stations of the Cross not only remember the suffering and death of Jesus but include our rendezvous with death: “My most sweet Jesus, I will not refuse the Cross…; I accept it; I embrace it. I accept in particular the death Thou hast destined for me; with all the pains that may accompany it; I unite it to Thy death, I offer it to Thee. Thou hast died for love of me; I will die for love of Thee, and to please Thee. Help me by Thy grace.” (Fifth Station, St. Alphonsus De Liguori) We may forestall death, but we cannot prevent it.
Our fear of death grows with age. Doctors say the human body begins to break down at age 50. Facial creams can transform a 70-year-old to look like a 69-year-old whipper snapper. Our benign vanities include medicines and treatments that mask the process of aging. Our expectations are reasonable. But self-deception creeps in. As we prolong our lives, we secretly hope to outwit death.
There are things worse than death. A father fails to defend his children from a corrupt government school system; a priest makes peace with the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” ideology; a soldier betrays his comrades in battle; a pandemic irrationally paralyzes a whole nation—including the entire Catholic hierarchy; love for life that excludes our ultimate destination reveals a lack of fortitude and a failure in faith. The second death is infinitely worse than the first: “As for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Rev. 21:8)
Funerals help us confront our fear of death. A requiem Mass affirms the sorrow of death and is an occasion to overcome the ambivalence of life and death. Life in Jesus overcomes death, and the joy of His grace extinguishes grief—as we pray for the happy repose of the deceased. A funeral with tears of sorrow and joy gives meaning to the famous “Irish wake,” with the always-appropriate luncheons.
But we often distort funerals to escape our fear of death. A Catholic requiem Mass becomes a “celebration of life.” With a one-sided emphasis on temporal life, we either overlook or merely presume eternal life. The Mass becomes another social event rather than a gift we receive from the Church to help the souls of the faithful departed enter heaven. It isn’t uncommon for the bereaved to cancel funeral plans when a priest doesn’t allow the family to hijack the liturgy to reduce the Mass to a happy “Mass of Remembrance.” Denying sorrow rooted in love is degrading, and the denial hinders the victory of authentic Christian joy.
The word “liturgy” means the “work of God.” God—through the Church—allows us to work through the Mass on behalf of the departed by matching our emotions. We shouldn’t be ashamed of an emotional reluctance—even dread—to attend a funeral Mass. But we overcome our feelings and labor in the Lord’s sacramental vineyard anyway.
Ambiguity about life and death is disturbing. So, we work through the requiem Mass, hearing the Word of God, offering our sacrifices to God during the Offertory, re-enacting the Sacrifice of the Cross during the Canon, and receiving Jesus in Holy Communion.
Fortified by the saving power of Jesus, we conclude a requiem Mass with the Paradisum:
May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs greet you at your arrival
and lead you into the holy City of Jerusalem.
May the choir of Angels greet you
and like Lazarus, who once was a poor man,
may you have eternal rest.
In Jesus, death is necessarily a painful and sorrowful road bump on our way to the joy of eternal glory. Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Ezekiel: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (Jn. 11:25-26)
O stench of death, where is thy victory?
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