It is good to think, from time to time, about death. We do not, I propose, think much about death. We fear it, mourn it, and perhaps even long for it. But rarely do we think about it. Why, we ought to ask, does death exist in the first place?
That natural response to death is sorrow and mourning. But why? Why do people from around the world, from many different cultures and even religions, share a common response to death? Yes, there are differences, of course. Some approach death with a stoic attitude that flees from displays of emotions. Others are precisely the opposite, drowning grief in a flood of tears. (I am inclined to believe that the latter approach is more human, since it is ultimately a more honest approach to the grieving process.) Some cultures display dramatic swings of emotion, going from intense displays of grief to feasting and revelry (perhaps even more human yet).
Yet there it is, in every culture throughout the world, the inseparability of death and grief. Instinctively, men and women know that death is not good. Written deep into our nature is a truth that we also know through Revelation: Death is not the way things were supposed to be. St. Paul tells us that, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Were it not for the first sin of our first human parents, that original sin whose effects still plague us all, death would never have come into the world. Adam and Eve enjoyed the gift of immortality. That does not mean that they necessarily would still be alive today, but their passing to the life of the blessed would have been painless and blissful.
The reality of sin is what makes death inevitably filled with grief: We know, deep down inside of ourselves, that this is not the way that things are supposed to be. The pain of loss that we feel, the hesitancy to confront our destiny, is the result of sin.
It is little surprise, then, that a world that increasingly does not believe in sin also struggles to confront the reality of death. A few years ago I attended a funeral of a brother priest. The homilist, his classmate and long-time best friend, said at one point in his homily, “John. He died.” The rest of the priests of the Diocese have made fun of this priest ever since for what is doubtlessly the more obvious point ever made in a funeral homily. Nevertheless, I think there was something to it. When was the last time you heard that someone had died? We have so many polite ways of getting around death. Someone is not dead, he is deceased. People do not die, they fall asleep or pass away. Or, worst of all, people are said to have entered eternal life (a dangerously presumptuous way of putting it).
Mourning is no longer seen as an important part of adjusting to this loss, of recognizing the gravity of death, but instead is seen as a burden. People flee from mourning from choosing not to have a funeral because they perceive that the emotional burden on their family will be too great. (Nothing could be further from the truth – the emotional burden from a lack of closure can be devastating.) Or, they choose to have a “celebration of life.” I am not precisely sure what a “celebration of life” is, but I have to imagine that it involves: 1) Presumptuously assuming that the person has gone straight to Heaven or 2) An assumption that nothing after this life exists, and in any case 3) An effort to avoid what is perceived as the emotional burden of grief.
Those who plan and facilitate such “celebrations” are doubtlessly well intentioned. However, we need to stop and actually think about death. Death means something – it has a reality all of its own that cannot be determined by you or me.
The Sacred Scriptures propose that death is the wages of sin, a tear in the fabric of the universe caused by original sin. Thus the Catholic Church, in the dramatic liturgy She sets before us today, invites us to confront the drama of death.
One of the many reasons that we moderns do not like to confront death is that it inevitably reminds us of another reality as well: Not only are we men and women sojourners and exiles whose mortal lives on this earth are but a blip on the timeline of the universe, but so too is the world itself. All this, like us, must have an end.
Thus it is the Sacred Liturgy on this Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed sets us before the reality not only of death (and the particular judgement that accompanies it) but even of the universal judgement at the end of time. In possibly no text throughout the entire liturgical year do we attain such drama as the Dies Irae, the famed sequence of All Souls’ Day. It began: “Dreaded day, that day of ire / When the world shall melt in fire / Told by Sibyl and David’s lyre. / Fright men’s hearts shall rudely shift / As the Judge through gleaming rift / Comes each soul to closely sift. / Then, the trumpet’s shrill refrain, / Piercing tombs by hill and plain, / Souls to judgment shall arraign.” Lest we suspect that this is merely fanciful medieval imagining, recall the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians in today’s epistle: “Brethren: Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall all indeed rise, but we shall not all be changed - in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”
The traditional Requiem Mass is certainly dramatic. Whether from the striking black vestments, foreign to most modern eyes, the dramatic tones of the Dies irae, or the repeated references to the reality of Hell as a real possibility for any soul, we might wonder whether it does not contain a bit too much medieval doom and gloom. And yet if the traditional Requiem Mass brings so much to our attention that is so foreign and shocking to our modern eyes and ears, it is not merely to wake us up from the modern existential crisis of the lack of meaning of death.
All this drama, all this talk of “the pains of hell and the deep pit,” serves to bring into relief that greatness of God’s power in saving us from what would be our just reward, the greatness of his mercy. The same Dies irae also sings, “You, O awe-inspiring Lord, Saving e’en when unimplored, / Save me, mercy’s fount adored. / O sweet Jesus, mindful be, That You came on earth for me: / Cast me not from You this day. / Seeking me Your strength was spent / Ransoming Your limbs were rent: / Is this toil to no intent? / You, awarding pains condign, / Mercy’s ear to me incline, / Ere the reckoning You assign.”
Furthermore, if we dwell on the reality of death, it is not only to see the greatness of God who delivers us from its effects in His mercy, but even to see the way that Christ defeats death all-together: “Death is swallowed up in victory! O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” we hear Paul writing to the Corinthians today (1 Cor 15). If we look carefully at the texts of the Requiem Mass, we see not only dramatic presentations of death and judgement, but tender petitions for light and rest. “May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord, with Your Saints forever, for You are kind” sings the communion antiphon.
Nevertheless, my brothers and sisters, Holy Mother Church calls us here today for two reasons: Firstly, so that devout suffrage might be offered for all the poor souls in purgatory, an expiatory sacrifice to wipe away the effects of their sins and free them from the sufferings of purgatory to enjoy the joys of eternal life and heaven. And secondly, so that we too might consider the reality of our own mortality and of the judgement to come. Our Lord says to us in the Gospel today, “The hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear the voice of the Son of God. And they who have done good shall come forth unto resurrection of life; but they who have done evil unto resurrection of judgment” (John 5).
That day of judgement will be tremendous and terrible, but faithfulness to the awe-inspiring judge in this life will reveal His loving mercy on the day of ire.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, A.D. MMXIX