Theological Reflection: Funerals

Last month, I had the honor of assisting at two funeral liturgies only days apart. That in itself would not be so unusual; we have had many funerals since I arrived here in August. What makes this particular sequence of funerals stand out in my memory is the vastly different circumstances of the deceased. The first was a boy less than six months old whose parents awoke one morning to find him lying dead in his crib. The family were heartbroken, the parents inconsolable. Since no one in the family felt up to the task of reading during that liturgy, I proclaimed these words from the Wisdom of Solomon, which have remained in my heart:

The righteous one, though he die early, shall be at rest. For the age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time, nor can it be measured in terms of years … The one who pleased God was loved, living among sinners, was transported—snatched away … Having become perfect in a short while, he reached the fullness of a long career; for his soul was pleasing to the LORD, therefore he sped him out of the midst of wickedness.1

Wisdom 4:7-14

My pastor admitted during his homily that he did not have the words to take away their pain, when all they wanted was to hold their child in their arms again. All that he could give them was the assurance that God is greater than death. This he indeed proclaimed, and then fell silent. The last thing I remember is standing beside him for a long time in silence as the men and boys took turns, one by one, shoveling dirt into his open grave.

The second funeral was for a woman who had just surpassed her hundredth birthday. Our church was packed with her relatives, down to the fifth generation of great-great-grandchildren, and they all congregated afterwards in front of the church, the kids eating cookies and playing, the adults swapping stories amid hugs and tearful smiles.

It would be hard to imagine two more different funerals! Though the liturgy was substantially the same, the fundamental difference is that the family in the latter case had many years to spend with the deceased. They felt that she had lived a long life and a good one. In the former, they felt that their child’s life had been cut short almost before it had begun; they mourned not only for him but for the future they had hoped to see, the years and memories that would never be. What can soothe a grief as enormous as that? I am sure my pastor was right in admitting that words could never be enough. As he also told me as we left the cemetery, the family would probably not remember the words we had said at all. They would, however, remember that we were there, and that we stayed.

It is only natural that the funeral of a hundred year old mother of many generations would be celebrated with more festivity, with sorrow interpenetrated with joy and laughter, than the unexpected, inconceivable funeral of a little baby. Yet the wisdom of that first reading is profound. Though they may not have been capable of receiving it then, I hope that the family do remember those words, for there is consolation and power in them: “The age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time, nor can it be measured in terms of years. Rather, understanding passes for gray hair, and an unsullied life is the attainment of old age” (Wis 4:8-9).

The Lord measures out a span of days for each one of us—“seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; most of them are toil and sorrow; they pass quickly, and we are gone” (Ps 90:10). When a life comes to an end, our human tendency is to judge it by its length, by their accomplishments, by the number of their descendants and the memories they made with those who survive them. We mourn the more bitterly for those who die early with none of these. But our prayer must be that of the Psalmist: “Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90:12). Counting our days aright means, in part, judging the real value of our human lives from God’s perspective, who is unimpressed by our accomplishments or length of days. The real value of a life is that the one who lived was a child of God, His beloved, who loved Him in return as best they could. Thus our Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook teaches that

Holy Mother Church, who … generates to a new and immortal life the children who are born to her in Baptism, and nourishes them by the sacraments during their earthly pilgrimage, accompanies each of them at his journey’s end, in order to surrender him ‘into the Father’s hands.’ She offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of his grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory.2

When we die, all that matters is that the one who came from God is returning to Him. We, the Church, pray that the holy angels speed them on their way, that the Father receives them with joy, and that, “even if final purifications are still necessary in order to be clothed with the nuptial garment of eternal joy and salvation,”3 they will soon partake in the wedding feast of the Lamb, where we hope to be reunited with them for all eternity.

As a priest, I hope to follow my pastor’s good example of keeping silent watch in moments of such extreme suffering and tribulation, being present with those who are in suffering and having the self-awareness to realize that many words will do more harm than good. At the same time, I hope to follow his example in simply and boldly announcing our faith that God is greater than death. And I hope to keep close to my heart and at the forefront of my mind—and to share it with those who grieve the loss of a loved one, when the time is right—that the value of each of our lives is determined not by our length of days or any of our accomplishments, but by the infinite love of God.


Footnotes

  1. New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 2010).
  2. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 14.1.1.
  3. ALH, 14.1.2.

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