Monday, July 7, 2014

Catholics and Death

The Butterfly is a symbol of the resurrection and new life
During my vacation the patriarch of one of the leading Catholic families at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta died.  The funeral was on a Saturday before my return, but I was still able to accompany the family in their grieve by attending one day of the "Novena por Los Disfuntos" ... nine days of prayers held in the home of the deceased after the funeral.

Every culture, sub-culture and people honor the dead in different ways and with different customs.  Even among Catholics the rituals around funerals vary from one area to another and from one country to another.   The one thing Catholics hold in common is the Mass of resurrection, which is the funeral service that celebrates the deceased loved one hope of new birth into heaven.   Our funerals are not sad events, even through sadness is very much present.   We focus on celebrating the life on earth and more importantly on the New Life in Heaven with Jesus.   We recognize our personal separation and loss of the loved one, but in hope, celebrate the loved one new life free of pain and suffering.  As the book of revelations tells us, in the final days, there "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the older order has passed away."  (Rev. 21:5)

Yet, each culture and region has some rituals that are uniquely theirs.   In rural Minnesota, where I grew up, the wake was normally three days after the death and the funeral was the next day, almost always at 10 a.m.   The wake was a more somber event with visitations most of the afternoon and evening.   The evening would  close with either a rosary or short Scripture service held at the funeral home. If there is a eulogy it is normally at this event.  The next day we would gather at the church.   The coffin would be sprinkled with Holy Water remembering the baptism of the  person.   Then a white cloth, called a pall, is draped over the coffin much as one does a flag for a soldier's funeral.   This white cloth represents the new robe for a new life just as we receive a white robe or cloth upon our earthly baptism.   Alleluias are song.   Hope and comfort is preached to those gathered.   A Easter Candle is light, again just like at baptism.   Catholics view death as our baptism into every lasting life with Christ in heaven.

The funeral  is followed immediately by burial and then everyone returns for lunch prepared by the local chapter of the Catholic Council of Women.

In East Tennessee, it is a bit different.   Here the viewing and funeral are the same evening.  Most viewing and funerals are in the funeral home, with only a few in the church itself.   The next day the immediate family and close friends gather for the burial.

Now the Catholic Mexican tradition adds a few other things to the remembrance of a loved one.  For instance, once they arrive at the funeral home they will stay through the night and not leave until the funeral Mass.  Usually the funeral Mass is held at the Church.   Then in a more traditional burial, they would often lower the casket themselves into the grave and fill in the hole themselves.   This last act is a sign of love for the departed.   It is a last act of generosity and service to the person.

This is followed by the Novena por los disfuntos (nine days of prayers for the dead).  

The man who died was married for almost 60 years to his wife.   Eight of his ten children live here in Tennessee.   Every evening they gathered in front of a memorial altar (usually a photo of the deceased and flowers) for a half hour of prayers.  In this way, they share their grieve with each other and God.   Their mother is not alone.   She is surrounded by love, in this case, by the fruits of this love:  her children, their spouses, their children and grandchildren as well as neighbors and friends.   Two important supports are offered: family and faith.  With family and faith we can get through the  toughest situation.   On earth, not much is tougher than the death of a loved one.
An example of a memorial altar

Yet, there is no need to fear death if you believe that Jesus lived, died for our sins and rose on the third day.   There is no need to fear the death if you understand that it is a painful birth into new Life:   a life free of pain and suffering, surrounded by love and peace in heaven with Jesus, Mary and all the Saints.  The pain of losing a loved one in death is real and is really tough.   Yet, with hope, family and faith, we understand that our loved one is free from pain and that one day we will be reunited in heaven.

Paul writes:   "What will separate me from the love of Christ?  ... For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. " (Romans 8:37-30).

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