The Month of Memento Mori and Questions About Death – EpicPew

The Month of Memento Mori and Questions About Death

November is the month during which the Church asks us to pray especially for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. In fact, during the first eight days of November the faithful may gain a plenary indulgence on the part of the dearly departed under the usual circumstances and then visiting a cemetery to pray for the dead buried there. This emphasis on both death and the hope of eternal life throughout the month naturally leads one to ponder one’s own mortality, and yes, even one’s own eventual death. Read on for some of the most common, yet often unasked, questions regarding death, Catholic funerals, and burial.

What is death?

{Public Domain} Noel-coypel-the-resurrection-of-christ-1700.jpg

This is a serious question. Depending on who you ask, different answers will be given. Some may say it is the end of earthly existence. Others, that it is the passing from one form of existence to another. Still others will say it is just “the end.” For Catholics, death is the result of original sin, but it has been conquered by Christ through His own passion and death. Pope Benedict XVI explains:

Jesus revolutionized the meaning of death. He did so with his teaching, above all by facing death himself. “Dying he destroyed death,” says the liturgy of the Easter season. “With the Spirit that could not die, Christ defeated death that was killing man,” wrote a Father of the Church (Melito of Sardis, “On Easter,” 66). In this way, the Son of God wished to share our human condition to the end, to open it to hope. Ultimately, he was born to be able to die and in this way to free us from the slavery of death. The Letter to the Hebrews says: “that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (2:9). Since then, death is no longer the same: It has been deprived, so to speak, of its “venom.” The love of God, acting in Jesus, has given new meaning to the whole of man’s existence and in this way, has also transformed death. If in Christ human life is a departure “from this world to the Father (John 13:1), the hour of death is the moment in which this departure takes place in a concrete and definite way.

Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address at St. Peter’s Square, Nov. 6, 2006

What is a funeral?

This may sound like a silly question, because, well, who doesn’t know what a funeral is, right? Right? If this paragraph already has you second guessing yourself, fear not. You probably have a good idea about what a funeral is, but perhaps not what is and isn’t included in a funeral liturgy. Notice that we said liturgy and not Mass. There is an important distinction here. A liturgy is a public service, duty, or work. According to Catholic Culture Dictionary: In present day usage liturgy is the official public worship of the Church and is thus distinguished from private devotion. It is the special title of the Eucharist, and the administration of the sacraments with the annexed use of the sacramentals. So a liturgy is not exclusively a mass, though the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is always a liturgy. Make sense?

When it comes to funerals, a funeral liturgy may be within the context of a funeral or requiem Mass. It may also be a Liturgy of the Word or a funeral liturgy outside of Mass (not a Mass, and sometimes referred to as a “service,” though this is more a Protestant term). Sometimes the funeral Mass is called a “Mass of Christian Burial”, and we will get to why it is called this in a minute.

Every so often circumstances arise that necessitate burial before a mass or liturgy outside of mass can be prayed. In this case, the funeral technically takes place at the graveside with prayers of commendation prayed before the Rite of Committal (the prayers at the burial place). Then later a Memorial Mass can be prayed for the deceased. This is not the ideal however, and the Church makes it clear that there is a preferred or typical order of events for funerals. Canon Law makes it clear that a funeral for any deceased member of the faithful must generally be celebrated in his or her parish church (Can. 1177 §1). However the Church knows that death can be tricky and that sometimes circumstances arise which prevent the preferred or ideal.

If this is starting to sound confusing, hang in there. The bottom line is, a deceased Catholic always gets a funeral.

What about burial? Is it optional?

{Public Domain} Calvary Queens Cemetery. See featured image footnote for attribution.

When it comes to Catholic funeral rituals and rites, most people assume that the church places the emphasis and importance on the funeral Mass and that what happens after that is secondary. However, this is inaccurate. Canon Law actually speaks very clearly about both the funeral and burial. In fact, it is the law of the church that the deceased be buried. Burial is not optional. The funeral or requiem Mass is the preferred context for the funeral rite, but it is only at the burial that the funeral Mass actually concludes. Pay close attention to the end a funeral Mass; you won’t hear “The Mass has ended.” Instead you will hear, “Let us now take our brother/sister to his/her place of rest.” That is how the funeral Mass concludes because it is only complete once the deceased has been committed to the ground; buried. That is why a funeral Mass is sometimes referred to as a Mass of Christian Burial. It referring to the fact that a Funeral and Burial are actually a packaged deal, not an á la carte option.

Ideally a funeral Mass will have been preceded by the Reception of the Body (often referred to as a time of visitation or wake) and then immediately followed by the rite of committal (burial). Customarily in the United States, the visitation is usually the afternoon and/or evening before the funeral and burial though sometimes they are all done on the same day.

Sometimes circumstances arise which dictate that the burial cannot take place immediately after the Funeral. This should be discussed with the pastor and the priest officiating the funeral as this is considered an exception, and they will need to verify that there are plans in place to bury the deceased according to Catholic tradition.

What about cremation? Is that allowed?

This is good question, and another greatly misunderstood aspect of Catholic funeral rites and rituals. Canon Law once again helps us out: The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine (Can. 1176 §3). What the Church is trying to say is that she prefers burial of the body over cremation. Why? Because we believe in the Resurrection of the body! Not just Christ’s but ours as well! This is part of our faith and our creed. At the end of time, when Christ comes again, we believe we will be reunited with our glorified body. Where is that body going to come from? It will be resurrected. Therefore the Church places emphasis on burying the body in anticipation of that resurrection.

The Church also says very clearly that cremated remains must be treated just as a body in a casket would be treated. To the Church, both an urn and a casket contain what will one day be resurrected: the mortal remains of a beloved son or daughter of God. That is why it is never permissible to scatter ashes, co-mingle ashes, separate ashes, or not bury someone who has been cremated.

What if I didn’t know these things and made some choices I now regret?

We have a merciful God who knows that we can only be held accountable for what we know in the moment that we make decisions. If you have made some choices regarding the funerals and burials of your loved ones that you are now questioning, first, ask God to give you peace. Then call your parish priest and ask if you could speak with him. Priests are experts in how to make things right. Last, pray for your deceased loved one. If they are in Purgatory, they need your prayers. If they are not, your prayers will be applied to someone who is, and who will gladly pray for you as well!

During this month when we think a little more about death, don’t be afraid to have conversations about your final wishes or the preferences of your loved ones for when they die. Death is a certainty, but our faith tells us that we should not fear it. Let is give Pope Benedict XVI the final word:

Those who commit themselves to live like Him [Jesus] are freed from the fear of death, no longer showing the sarcastic smile of an enemy but offering the friendly face of a “sister,” as St. Francis wrote in the “Canticle of Creatures.” In this way, God can also be blessed for it: “Praise be to you, my Lord, for our Sister Bodily Death.” We must not fear the death of the body, faith reminds us, as it is a dream from which we will awake one day.

The authentic death, which one must fear, is that of the soul, called by the Book of Revelation “second death” (cf. 20:14-15; 21:8). In fact, he who dies in mortal sin, without repentance, locked in prideful rejection of God’s love, excludes himself from the Kingdom of life.

Through the intercession of Mary Most Holy and of St. Joseph, let us pray to the Lord for the grace to prepare serenely to depart from this world, when he wills to call us, with the hope of being able to be with him eternally, in the company of the saints and of our deceased loved ones.

Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Message, Nov. 6. 2006.

Featured image: Wiki Commons. CalvaryCemeteryQueens edit.jpg. {Public Domain}