Nov 2, 2010

Remembering the Faithful Departed: All Souls Day

John 6: 37-40

Jesus said to the crowds:
“Everything that the Father gives me will come to me,
and I will not reject anyone who comes to me,
because I came down from heaven not to do my own will
but the will of the one who sent me.
And this is the will of the one who sent me,
that I should not lose anything of what he gave me,
but that I should raise it on the last day.
For this is the will of my Father,
that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him
may have eternal life,
and I shall raise him on the last day.”

After these years in priestly ministry, I’ve come to the conclusion that Americans generally have a tough time with death. We are so fixed on youth, wealth, physical beauty and living life to its fullest that when we are faced with the death of a loved one or are reminded of our own mortality, it simply doesn’t compute for us. So, we would rather refer to a funeral service as, “a celebration of life” or a “memorial service.” I renamed the funeral of a recent parishioner, “A celebration of eternal life.” The family, adult children of the deceased seemed satisfied with that.

Alternatively, we have an unhealthy fascination with death. The book, Final Exit: The Practicalities of self-deliverance and assisted suicide for the dying (That's the title) by Derek Humphry is readily available on Amazon and has been among the top sellers. While the Christian faith would say, "Yes, death is an exit - it is not final."

One other indicator of our uncomfortable attitude with death is the rising practice of cremation. Not too long ago one of our local funeral directors told me that about 70% of their business is cremations rather than body burial. Personally, I find that not all that of a surprise. We would rather see our loved ones in life and the thought of seeing them lying in a casket is just too unsettling. Yet, the Catholic funeral liturgy is a beautiful celebration of our faith. Around the body of the deceased, it brings comfort to the living and strength to grieve the loss of their loved one. As once was said, "Christians laugh in the face of death."

In death we proclaim our faith that death is not the end but that Christ Jesus, in his own death and resurrection, has brought us the promise of hope and eternity with him. This body will one day rise again. This person who lays here lives now, we pray, before the throne of almighty God and those who have passed before. The body is sacred both in life and in death. It is not something to simply be discarded.

So while the Church permits cremation, it does not in any way encourage it. The costs of a traditional funeral can be high. On average around $10,000. But, there are ways to reduce those costs or to include the cost of a funeral in a life insurance policy. To at least have the body of the deceased present for the funeral liturgy and then cremation may take place afterwards if one chooses for burial of the remains. That would be the perfect compromise.

It’s true, however, that death is never an easy process. I lost my Father 14 years ago and my older brother died suddenly just one year ago so I can empathize with feelings of sadness and the “let’s get this funeral over with” thought process that some may feel. When I first came to this parish my first four funerals were all for children and infants. I couldn't help but wonder what God was thinking? That was very tough but faith does make a difference.

Today’s beautiful Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed has a direct link to our celebration of All Saints Day. We, the Church here on earth, offer prayers for our brothers and sisters, the Church “suffering” in their stage of final purification (Purgatory) before entering eternal life, where we join with all God’s holy one’s who cheer us on as we work out our salvation this side of heaven.

One of our newest Saints, Canadian Brother Andre Bessette, said: “There is so little distance between heaven and earth that God always hears us. Nothing but a thin veil separates us from God.”

If that veil is so thin, then so little may separate us from those who have died. And, this is why in an ancient tradition, we lift our minds and hearts to a merciful God today and for the entire month of November that those who have died be cleansed and welcomed through the mercy of God to eternal life. As I heard described once, Purgatory is where we go to wash our baptismal garments. Not a bad description.

So, we pray to the saints and we pray for our brothers and sisters who have died this day. There is a Mexican saying that we die three deaths: the first when our bodies die, the second when our bodies are lowered into the earth out of sight, and the third when our loved ones forget us. Let us not forget. As Christians, our sadness is softened by our faith and the promise of hope.

Eternal rest grant to them O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them.