Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Memento Mori: On remembering death/1

A reader wrote to me recently, asking some excellent questions flowing from something I posted recently on funerals.

In particular, she wrote that she herself had recently attended a couple of 'heartbreakingly secular funerals', and wondered how to ensure that she gets a proper Requiem Mass in due course.

It is an important topic, and she had several questions around it, so I'm going to try and answer her questions over a couple of posts.

Today though, I thought I'd tackle her first one, which is perhaps the most critical one, namely is it morbid or odd to worry about getting a proper funeral even if you are only young?

Is it morbid or odd to worry about getting a proper funeral if you are only relatively young?

The answer is, in my view, absolutely not!

Death is the one thing we know will come to us all, so it makes sense to plan for it.

And while we all hope we'll get our threescore years and ten (or more!), we can't rely on that.

Death can come at any time, so it is only prudent to be prepared for it.

Indeed, one of the wisdom sayings in the Rule of St Benedict is 'To keep death daily before one's eyes' (RB 4).


Thinking about death needn't be a negative or morbid remembrance though, for what St Benedict is actually getting at is that we should direct all our thoughts and actions in the here and now to getting to heaven: indeed he also advises that we should 'constantly turnover in our heart the eternal life which is prepared for us' (RB 7).

Christians, in other words, must cultivate the theological virtue of hope, for we have the promises of Christ to sustain us, and know that death is not the end.

For the Catholic, then, preparing for death needs to have two key spiritual focuses it seems to me: first making sure that we will ultimately get to heaven; and secondly, making sure we get out of purgatory as quickly as possible.

Final perseverance

Making sure that we will ultimately get to heaven, which requires that we persevere in the faith to the end and die in a state of grace.  

Getting to heaven is achieved by striving to grow in holiness, through all the normal means of grace the Church provides.  

There are though some particular practices that you could consider adopting now that are useful reminders, such as praying daily for the grace of  'final perseverance', that 'last grace which confirms us in the Lord at the moment of death'.

Even if we've lived a good Christian life, this grace is not something we can take for granted.

A happy death

We can also pray for a happy death.  

It is important to keep in mind that the Catholic concept of a happy death is not the same as the current prevailing secular one.  

Catholics can look forward to death as the gate to our birth in heaven, but that doesn't mean we have to be eager for that to occur right now (unless of course we have already achieved the maximum degree of perfection we are capable of!) and shouldn't seek proper treatment for our illnesses.  But neither does it mean that we should adopt the secularist obsession with futile treatments that attempt to extend life at any cost, including to our own dignity.

Nor does it mean that we should allow things to be speeded along!  These days palliative care can make death a fairly pain-free process in most cases and that's a good thing if it allows us to face death recollected and properly prepared.  But equally, if we do have to endure some suffering in the process, we should remember that suffering can be redemptive if embraced and offered for ourselves and others.  

Thinking through the issues around medical treatment in case we suffer an accident or major illness is important; so too is recording our preferences in the event that we can't speak for ourselves, and making sure our family and friends are aware of our views and are prepared to carry them out.

More important still, though, for a Catholic, is ensuring that we are prepared spiritually for the event and will be well supported through it.

In particular, a happy death means having the chance to receive the sacraments in preparation for death, particularly those ordered to it, namely Extreme Unction ('Anointing')  and Viaticum (the Eucharist as food for the journey).

It also means having people ready to pray for us immediately before and after our deaths (including a priest who can give the Apostolic Blessing to a person in danger of death) to help smooth the way - there are standard prayers for this purpose contained in most missals and prayer books, and readily available online that we should all be familiar with.   

Getting out of purgatory!

The second focus is to get out of purgatory as quickly as possible once we do die.

We should, of course, strive to become saints in this life, and thus skip the need for a period of purgation, or purification after death.  

The prayers said by and for us (such as the Indulgence attached to the Apostolic Blessing) and the suffering (be it physical or psychological) that we endure as we approach death might help us get over the line if we've strived diligently all our lives.

Few of us will manage sainthood that quickly however, hence the importance of a funeral and other events to solicit the prayers of the living for us, since in purgatory we can no longer help ourselves.

And in this light, I'll talk more about the options around funerals and related matters in the next post on this subject...

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