It is a challenging task to explain to people, Christians and non-Christians alike, the reasons why our contemporary views and practices surrounding death are often unsatisfying. Everyone reacts to the fact of mortality, that is clear. However, while it is evident that everyone reacts to the reality of mortality, it is less clear if the most common reactions these days are very helpful, for the living or for the dead.
Death ought to provoke a truly meaningful and uniquely human response, one that conveys the awareness of the frailty and wonder of our human existence, and also one that acknowledges the grandeur of God. A meaningful response that encapsulates the mystery of the human with the divine allows death to be dealt with properly, allowing for its integration into the fabric of life.
However, more often than not in our contemporary culture the reactions to death, the rituals that accompany it, are less than truly meaningful on the deepest levels that our nature requires. They leave an empty hole in our souls that we are eager to dismiss, and that we often do not acknowledge. As time passes, this tendency dehumanizes the living, the dead, and the culture.
Death in the Context of a Monastery
A helpful way to illustrate the often inadequate reactions we offer is to contrast them with another perspective, or set of reactions, rooted in a more classically Catholic worldview of the mystery of God and man.
Consider the example of traditional monastic communities. One manner of tending to mortality has to do with the basic and intentional layout of a monastery itself, especially on a Medieval plan. The long abbey chapel is often the northern edge of the monastic footprint, and to the south of it is the main entry to the dormitories of the men or women, accessed by a short stairway leading to the church. Directly opposite that stairway, across the chapel and on the outside of the northern wall of the church, is frequently found the cemetery. This structural layout ensures that daily, when it is still dark, the community members make their way to the church to pray the Vigil Office, and they descend (as if into a tomb) into the church. They descend while also staring at the location where, at the end of their lives, they will be buried. In the community Mass that follows the chanting of the morning offices, the monastics celebrate the resurrection that is the source of their joy and hope. It is a daily brush with death and resurrection, both their own and that of those who have gone before, given authentic meaning in the Paschal Mystery.
Some religious houses incorporate a chapel of the dead. In it might be found statues of skeletons carrying on their heads a tall candle symbolizing that the resurrection has triumphed over mortality. In such a chapel, either a temporarily erected one or a permanent space, each recently-deceased member of the house pauses for a couple days on the way to the abbey church for the main funeral Mass, while the living brothers or sisters each take turns praying the psalms on each side of the casket.
In many houses there is a daily procession to or from the main meal, wherein the men or women walk reciting all of Psalm 51, offered for the forgiveness of sins of the dead. There is often a daily reading of the necrology, during which all listen while someone reads off the list of the members of the house who, over the last several centuries, died on that date. After that another psalm is prayed for mercy on their souls. The general prayers for the dead are also offered each day as part of the meal prayers.
It is common to reserve one Mass each month offered in black or violet vestments, for all the deceased, especially the members of the specific religious order. Masses are frequently offered for the repose of the soul of some recently deceased member, or more impressively perhaps, for the souls of major monastery benefactors who are remembered annually, most of whom died hundreds of years ago. It is as if they died only yesterday in the collective liturgical mind of these communities.
This portrait of the monastic view of mortality and its accompanying ritual reactions to it, demonstrates well the classic mindset that those who have died need the assistance of the living, and that in Christ the dead are very close to us. It is a duty and a privilege to extend care to the dead after their earthly life has ended. The bridge of care that is extended from the living to the dead is only made possible by the linking of the living and the dead that is accomplished in Christ’s death and resurrection. Only a thoroughly Christian worldview allows for this conviction. It is also critical that one always keeps before his or her eyes their own mortality, so that the opportunities for virtuous living in this life will not be wasted. This life is short, it is a gift, and it is given so that one may know, love, and serve God- period.
Death Is No Longer About the Dead
The monastic viewpoint and its corresponding practices are impressive for what they convey about proper, loving care for the deceased. At the same time, by way of contrast to much of the contemporary outlook on death, they highlight the shifting nature of grief and changing views on death that have led up to our own day.
The author Charles Taylor summarizes the differences between Medieval views of death as opposed to those of today in this way: centuries ago, the chief anguish over the deceased had to do with the fear that their soul would not be saved, whereas today the chief anguish is over the fact that the living will not see them anymore alive. The Catholic liturgical tradition, most especially maintained in monasteries and via the customs noted above, operates out of the older understanding or viewpoint as the chief driver of the rituals. Previously, our main duty to the dead was to pray for their souls, and our chief concern upon their passing was whether they will be rescued from damnation. Something of a secondary concern, though certainly valid, was the consolation of the living on this earth who have to say “good bye.“
In popular culture, and even in most Catholic circles these days, these ideas or priorities have become inverted. Most people simply assume that when someone dies they are automatically with God, in heaven, or wherever. The deep concern is no longer about the deceased. “They are in a better place now, “ or “They are not suffering anymore,“ we often say. Rarely does anyone pause to ask or wonder how those things are known with such certainty. This fact is what is commonly assumed without qualification.
With such a large and unproven assumption now directing our reactions to someone’s death, the focus of the mourning, and the source of any pain, becomes exclusively about everyone left behind: the grief of the living. We quickly focus on how much we will miss the deceased, how sad it is that they are not here, what will we do now. Or, more and more these days, we focus on how we can hang on tightly to them, and to their memory, and even to their existence so that we do not have to part from them. Increasingly there exists the desire not to bury the remains of the dead, but rather the need to keep them in our home, near our bed, in our garden, or even around our neck in a locket. Each survivor wants to get a piece of the deceased so that we can possess them and keep the dead for ourselves, like an exclusive possession.
In such a climate funeral Masses, if they happen at all, become almost totally about the living and not about benefiting the dead. We cease to offer prayers for the dead because, in an abrupt way, once they are dead we do not worry about them anymore. Instead, our chief focus is on ourselves and how we are feeling about it all. Without a deeply held desire to commend them to the care of the living God, who is the only bridge between the living and the dead, we are left to have recourse only to our memories of them. A funeral becomes a means to “celebrate their life,” which can now exist only in the past. Our frame of reference to soothe our pain depends directly upon how mindful we are of the deceased, rather than on our knowledge of God. There is no means available to us to resolve our grief, or integrate it into God’s pattern of salvation, when the link between the living and the dead is so horizontal.
The Need to Bury Dead Rituals and Bad Theology
Any mode of thinking, or ritual, that is so deeply self-referential is lonely, sad, and unfulfilling. In this way, most contemporary funerals and funeral practices are dead. Yes, there is of course a needed degree of comfort in a community gathered and in mutual support, but without a firm hope in the God who saves, and without a strong awareness of one’s own role to go on caring for those who have died, any comforts of a funeral ritual are short-lived. They cannot adequately speak to the nature of God, of man, of life, or of death.
Much healthier and also much more charitable is the classic Catholic viewpoint of the dead that focuses our concern not so much on ourselves, though that does have its place, but more importantly on THEM. It is an outwardly-directed sentiment, a more loving sentiment, a less self-focused sentiment. It is authentically communal, appropriately transcendent, more theologically accurate, liturgically beautiful, and in all those ways it is simply better for us. It is better for the dead as well.
Such a shift in current practice rests upon a wide-scale revisiting of the assumption that everyone who dies automatically goes to heaven. This requires a much longer conversation about current theological gaps that exist across the systematic spectrum of Catholic life. For present purposes, it is at least important for us the living and the mourning to step back and objectively analyze our experiences surrounding mortality and grief. We should ask if we are missing something critical that those in prior eras understood more clearly. It is true that the entire world is not a monastery, however the monastic practices described above are illustrative of a more theologically accurate outlook on life and on death that wider parish life and contemporary culture can seek to emulate in whatever ritualistic ways seem sensible. Doing so would benefit everyone, both the living and the dead.