One of the things the Church does well are those rituals which surround death and the remembrance of it. Death is something which is present for every one of us, no matter how well we try to avoid it; it is the inescapable final episode of life. And at that moment, the Church can offer something deeply important not only for the dying person, but also for those close to them.
In the Church calendar, November is set aside as the ‘month of the Holy Souls’ – these being the dead, whose eternal fate we can never be certain of and whom we hope are at least enduring the purification of Purgatory even if they are not yet in Heaven. We call them ‘holy’ because those souls leaving Purgatory are certainly destined for Heaven.
And we hope above all that those deceased people whom we have known and loved in life are not among the damned, who are beyond any help we can offer.
And so we commend the dead to the mercy of the Lord and hope for their salvation; and see seek to assist them by our prayers and sacrifices, particularly in this month during which we remember them very specially.
Our parish had a special Mass last evening for the Holy Souls. At this Mass, an invitation is extended to all those families who have lost a loved one over the past year. During the Mass, memorial candles are lit, each one bearing the name of a deceased person, and the families come forward and place these candles upon the Altar. If the families wish, they can take the candles home with them afterward.
We have had almost fifty funerals over the past year – many of which I was present at, and so I recognised most of the families at the Mass last night. I spoke with some of them later on and listened to comments about how they had found the rituals of the Church helpful not only around the time of death but also later on.
These rituals begin with the preparation for an expected death, when it is drawing close. It consists of the Viaticum and the Sacrament of the Sick – Holy Communion (where possible) and anointing with holy oil, and prayer. It also consists of presence – simply being with the dying person and their families in those moments or hours or days. At the time of death, that presence continues and then moves into preparation for the funeral and burial or cremation.
Within the home or funeral parlour, the Church continues to play a role when the family, friends and others gather together to pray the Rosary in the presence of the dead person, often with a priest present. This often happens over three consecutive evenings prior to the funeral itself, and the final evening often ends with taking the coffin from home to Church in a solemn procession. There, the coffin is sprinkled with Holy Water and welcomed into the Church, before prayers are said and readings offered.
The final ritualistic moment is that of the funeral itself. The essential outline of the funeral is set in place already, with the family able to choose readings, hymns, a eulogy, and other elements of the funeral, in which they take an active part if they wish to do so. Throughout, the Paschal Candle – lit at Easter and reminding us that Christ is both our light and our life – is ablaze, it’s flame saying so much without the need of words. At the end, the coffin is again sprinkled with Holy Water, reminding us that “in Baptism we died with Christ”, so that in death we rise with Him to a new and eternal life. After this, the coffin is buried – or cremated – as prayers are offered.
All these rituals, with which we are already acquainted, allow us to ‘get through’ the difficult moments surrounding death, especially the death of someone we love deeply. In a sense, we can go ‘into autopilot’ and get through those moments intact, if we need to do so. We know what to say, what to do, when to do it. The thinking and the deepest grieving is, in a sense, held there in suspension for a moment, although we will return to it soon afterward. We just have to get through those moments.
I expect that most of the families present at the Mass last night would have been thinking back to the funerals of their loved ones, especially those for whom the funerals took place more recently. A number of those family members were tearful as they came forward with their candles. I hope there was at least a touch of consolation to be amongst so many other who would have understood all too perfectly their sense of loss and grief. Grief has to have been experienced before it can be understood.
Also resent in the Church throughout the month of the Holy Souls, we have the Book of Remembrance – in this are inscribed the names of those who died over the past year, together with many others who we have lost across the years, and whom we stop to remember. This Book of Remembrance is accorded great honour – it stands on a lectern draped in purple cloth, adorned on either side with lit candles. It says to all of us that our dead are not forgotten but are indeed remembered.
This month and these acts all remind us of one further thing, too – that although today we are remembering those who have already gone before us, one day we will join their ranks, and it will be us being remembered by others.
Our turn will come.