When I was a little girl, I loved funerals. Not just because they meant that we got to eat fried chicken, casseroles, and endless desserts or listen to stories of our beloved on the back-porch swing into the hours of night. It was what came with all that glorious togetherness that gripped my heart: participating with the transcendent.
Family rosaries huddled together in a living room too small for the forty plus members of our clan, incense rising over the casket that my uncles would carry into the back of the church, names being added to every intention list known to God and man. It was captivating.
Death meant family time, good food, and prayer. What more was there?
Catholics have a unique relationship with death because we get to show our love for people in a special way after they die. We recognize that we are not God, who determines where our loved ones will spend eternity, and so in faith and charity, we pray that despite their imperfections, the Lord will have mercy on them and welcome them into heaven.
While some might find them somber, Catholic funerals are really nothing more than testaments of gratitude and love. They’re opportunities for family and friends to thank the Lord for the deceased’s life, but also to intercede for them, asking that they attain eternal life. They’re beautiful.
At my husband’s previous duty station, my family would occasionally attend the base chapel that did something during Mass that I found extraordinary. Every Sunday, before the general intentions were read, someone would read the names of US military members who had died serving our country that week. I was astounded that nearly every week there was at least one name read; there are still men and women dying for our freedom on a regular basis.
After the name was read, a solemn bell rang. It was touching, yet chilling, and I could tell, was not lost on the hundred or so people who listened to those names each week. Names that the rest of the country might not ever hear, but were remembered in grateful prayer in that tiny chapel nonetheless.
Any death in the military is a tremendous loss for its members and our nation as a whole, but when a plane crashes it leaves a particular sting in the hearts of aviators and their families. Once the news breaks that a jet has gone down, wives and mothers hold their breath until they hear the voice of their loved one on the other end of the line, saying, “I’m ok.”
But it’s little consolation, knowing that some other wife and mother won’t receive that moment of relief. Their anguish resonates throughout the entire naval aviation community, knowing that it could have been anyone. A loss for one is a loss for all, or as John Donne wrote, “don’t ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”
Yet in the midst of the sorrow and confusion of a life cut short, we do not have to be paralyzed in our mourning. We can still act in love by cherishing the people we care about who are still alive, supporting the grieving loved ones left behind, and, of course, praying for the dead.
The things that drew me to funerals when I was small are still alluring to me today. Now that I’m older, though, I mourn those losses more deeply than before, imagining what could have been if the Lord gave them just a little more time here. But more than anything, I recognize and appreciate how special our prayers for our friends truly are once they’re gone.
The quality time that comes with a funeral is special, the food is nice, but the prayers we pray are what sustain our hope. Hope that the story doesn’t end when we lose someone, and our love for and friendship with that person doesn’t stop, it’s made new. Hope for eternal life.
I pray that death doesn’t touch your life any time soon, but when it undoubtedly does, I hope that you are surrounded by people who love you, good food to comfort you, and that you remember your beloved in prayer.
They will need it. We all will.
“Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace.”