Attending Funerals for Strangers: “Remember You Will Die”

mass, prayer, petition, funeral, worship

Before being hired to work at a Catholic parish, I had only been to five funerals in my life. Each of those funerals has been for someone elderly and who was connected to me or someone close to me. And although those losses grieved me, I recognize that I am fortunate not to have needed to attend more. I am still a young woman, and my social circles are much more likely to be filled with news of marriages, births, and baptisms than of deaths and funeral arrangements. For the most part, tragedy has kept away. I have been lucky.

Since becoming a church employee, however, my previous lifetime number has nearly doubled in less than a year, and shows no sign of slowing down. I work for a small parish, so when a funeral occurs I go to help get things set up and stay for the Mass.

“Remember You Will Die”

Catholicism has a long tradition of memento mori, that is, “remember you will die.” Catholics are encouraged to meditate on the four last things– death, judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Inspired by Sister Theresa Aletheia, a Daughter of St. Paul, I keep a small plastic skull on my desk to remind me of my mortality. But even with that, it’s easy to forget that one day I will no longer walk this earth. And that can be sad and alarming, the kind of thing you don’t look at too closely. But if you force yourself to look at that reality in the light of God’s promises, it doesn’t have to be. I have the hope of eternal life.

St. John of the Cross wrote “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” This isn’t merely a nice sentiment; it’s the truth. The love he’s referring to isn’t warm and fuzzy; it’s a choice to put the good of others before our own. It’s a choice to make time for prayer when we’d rather do anything else, and a choice to follow God’s will even when it brings pain. It’s not always easy, although there is much joy in it. And I won’t lie and pretend that I am perfect, that I never lose my patience or skip prayer time. But with God’s help I keep trying, and I do it for love.

In Luke’s gospel, a scholar of the law asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. “Jesus said to him, ‘What is written in the law? How do you read it?’ He said in reply, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ He replied to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this and you will live,’” (Luke 10:26-28). So it’s that simple, and it’s that difficult. We are called to love God with everything we have, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

Praying For the Deceased

Attending the funeral of someone you don’t know is a lonely experience. My heart goes out to the family and friends of the one who has died. I’m saddened when I see people I know from around the parish attending the funeral and know they’ve been struck by loss. I make it a point to say a prayer for the soul of the deceased.

The job of laying the pall atop the casket has somehow fallen to me. I stand in the entryway of the church as the pallbearers roll the casket inside, holding the cloth. The family gathers around the casket and the priest begins to pray. He sprinkles the casket with holy water and recalls the baptism of the person who has died. I lay the pall on top of the casket, unfold it a little, and the family does the rest of the job unfolding it and spreading it out. I stand to the side as the casket is rolled down the aisle of the church towards the altar. A long line of people, family members, follow behind while I do my best to stay out of the way. Then the Mass begins.

So much is the same each time, and yet every person was unique, with their own story, their own joys and burdens. All that is over now. We pray they are welcomed into eternal life. One day, we hope, others will do the same for us.

As the rest of the funeral attendees begin the drive to the cemetery, I break away from the crowd and head back to the parish office. I have to go back to work.

It’s no sin to feel desolate, to mourn even those we did not know well. But remembering the evening of my own life, I know that “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13). I pray that when I see God face to face I will be found to have spent my life in love. That is all that matters, in the end.

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