November is the month in which we, as Catholics, traditionally remember and pray for our beloved dead. We offer masses, visit cemeteries and pray for the souls in purgatory. Our prayers for the dead are a spiritual work of mercy and an expression of our faith in Christ’s promise of eternal life. The manner in which we care for our dead is a corporal work of mercy, reflecting the dignity of the human body and the preciousness of the gift of life. As families have become smaller in size and more mobile there are some new changes and challenges that families have to face. One of the surprising challenges that people do not consider is what to do when a loved one dies. Despite the commercials on TV and ads in the newspapers and magazines about pre-need planning, many people fail to make plans for their funerals and leave it up to others. At the time of the death of a loved one, family members are often in shock. They are confused and struggle to know what to do when a loved one dies. With fewer family members to rely on and family members being geographically distant from extended family, people are left scrambling as the collective wisdom, knowledge and experience is now dissipated.
We are all going to die. God offers us eternal life but not in this world! Death is a part of life and also a part of our Catholic faith. We pray at the funeral mass, “Life is changed not ended! When our earthly body lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling in heaven.” As Catholics, we view death as both a loss and gain. We do not try to sanitize the reality of death’s pain and loss. Likewise, death is the time for us to express and embrace the truths of our Catholic Faith. Paradoxically, in our contemporary “culture of death” there is a widespread and prevailing denial of death and a tendency to avoid the harshness of death. Increasingly in our society, death is treated trivially. This reflects the growing disrespect we have for life. The contemporary attitude of not wanting to face the sadness, pain and grief caused by death results in attempts to make funeral rites “happy.” Such attempts are inconsistent and are in conflict with our basic human emotions and our Christian Faith. This is not healthy psychologically or spiritually. While death is a mystery, it is very real. If death has no sadness or loss what does that say about the joy of eternal life? If death is nothing or only happy, what is the need of salvation or the value of the promise of resurrection? The rites of the Church at the time of death assist us with God’s grace in dealing with our pain and loss and in strengthening our faith and hope. More importantly, we assist those who have died with our love and prayers.
Just as death is real there are also practical things that need to be done. What to do? First, is prepare. Live a holy life. Don’t be a stranger to God or his Church. Pray and work daily to live in a state of grace. Pray for a happy and holy death. This is for ourselves and our loved ones. For those near death, they or their family members should make sure that the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is received. For those who are unable to attend mass, a pastoral visit and Holy Communion can be brought to the home or care center. If in a hospital, call for the priest chaplain or call the parish for the sacraments. Do not delay in calling for a priest to administer the Sacrament of the Sick. Do not wait until death is imminent.
When possible, just as with making pre-need plans with a funeral director ahead of time, one can also do the same for the funeral liturgy. On our website we have information to help with the planning. Our Funeral Aid Ministry can be contacted ahead of time for assistance and guidance. It is important to communicate with family members and friends that you want a Catholic funeral. Written instructions are very helpful to family members in honoring the wishes of the deceased and in making decisions at a difficult time. These funeral instructions along with medical directives and will should be reviewed and updated periodically. To be continued.