Whenever the month of November rolls around, and we bring photographs of our deceased friends and family members to put on the window sills in church, I like to bring pictures of my grandparents, my aunt, and a former student who died in college. Then I like to walk around church and look at the photos everyone else brings. Some of the faces I recognize year after year. They’re usually in the same places, as people often sit in the same places, and like to put their pictures where they can see them. Some pictures don’t come back every year. I like to think they’re away on an extended vacation. I hope they have a good time wherever they are. Some of them I recall who were parishioners, people whose funerals I remember celebrating in this parish. Most of them I never knew in life, having lived and died someplace else, some of them gone long before I arrived. But from looking at their pictures, I imagine the grief and fragile peace of those they left behind, family and friends who remember their dear ones with a tinge of sadness, but also with gratitude for having crossed paths along the journey, knowing they will never be the same again.
Whenever I get a phone call from the funeral home, I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I am immediately saddened that I am not hearing directly from a family member that their loved one has died, especially if they’re parishioners. Occasionally, the deceased hasn’t been to church in a while, so their immediate family, who don’t know me, are not comfortable talking to a stranger. It breaks my heart that they may have never been offered the comforts of our faith—the sacraments: holy communion, confession, the anointing of the sick. We didn’t get to pray for them in their final illness because we didn’t know. Then suddenly we’re sending them home to God and I have no idea who they are. So I end up spending a lot of time listening to stories about them from other people. I do that anyway, but I prefer it so much more when I have stories of my own. I understand some people don’t often think that being their parish priest, I would actually welcome hearing directly from them at moments like this. They think they’re doing me a favor not bothering me when there is probably nothing I can do anyway. Or they think calling me means they’ve given up. And by the time I hear from them, it’s not time to tell them how it all could have unfolded better. So I smile and do my best to extend comfort. It is often the only thing I can do.
When a loved one dies, whether after a long illness or suddenly, whether they are Catholic or not, especially if they come to church with us, call me. I don’t share my cell number with everyone, so call the parish office. And if the parish office is closed, you will be directed to my number at home. If I have visited with your loved one in their final illness, you will have gotten my cell number by then. I have spent long hours with a few non-Catholics and non-parishioners in their final illness who have asked me by their side. They are usually more forward than Catholic parishioners. They know what they want, and they don’t want my pity. We talk about life, love, family, their fears, their faith. They ask many questions I can’t answer. But that’s okay. We get past the small talk quickly when they know there’s not a lot of time left. And when they are no longer able to talk, I am comforted that they had the chance to speak their peace.
When I am called to visit someone in the hospital or a nursing home, if I have never met them before, I will ask a family member to be present, so they don’t think I’m there because no one has told them they’re dying. Not a pleasant experience. I will visit them as often as they ask, to bring communion, to hear confession, to give the anointing of the sick. And if they tell me not to come, I won’t be offended. At least I offered.
The preferable way to mark the passing of a loved one is with a funeral, not a graveside service, not nothing. And funerals are for the living, to help us give thanks, to help us know God’s peace. Funerals should take place in church. This is where we are welcomed in baptism, where we experience God’s forgiveness in confession, where we are nourished at the Eucharistic table, where we celebrate weddings and ordinations. It only makes sense unless you feel strongly that the ceiling might not hold up, but even then. A funeral may be a Mass or not, depending on whether those who attend may receive communion or not. We read from sacred scripture, we sing church songs, not Bette Midler, not Elvis, not the Backstreet Boys. We pray out loud, and we pray quietly. We use incense and holy water. Caskets are interred at the cemetery, and so are cremated remains. They are not scattered in the woods or in the ocean. They don’t go home to sit above the fireplace or in a cupboard. If you are waiting to inter cremated remains after the surviving spouse dies, at least give them a place of honor and dignity. We believe they are really more than just a pile of ashes. And don’t give ashes out as souvenirs. That is just tacky.
In this season of gradually failing light and sharp biting wind, we watch how nature prepares for the sleep of winter. Around us trees have shed their leaves. What remains are barren branches, a disguise similar to death. But we know they will bloom again in the spring, the rest they take necessary to restore and renew their lives within. So it is with our loved ones who sleep in death. Jesus reminds us that the Father wills he not lose those who are his own, but that he will raise them up on the last day. They rest in God’s peace awaiting the new spring of everlasting life.
Our faith teaches us that death is not the end, that we are created for eternity, that a great reward awaits those who persevere in faith. Each week we proclaim faith in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Faith is not about having proof or answers. It is about trust despite our lack of understanding. It is believing without seeing. It is taking a step into the darkness not knowing where your feet will land, yet trusting you will touch solid ground, or you will receive wings to fly. We believe that our God is trustworthy. He does not make promises he cannot keep.
So we teach our children about death as we teach them about life, that death is only a door, and what lies beyond the door is the eternal wedding feast and life without end. So we look upon these photographs and remember those who have gone ahead of us, and we can imagine them looking back at us with love. These faces at the window tell us not to be fearful, that they are at peace. We travel our journey with hope and joy, patiently awaiting the time when we will once again be together. Our loved ones await us beyond that door, and with them, our loving God and all his angels and saints.
Rolo B Castillo © 2014