Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
In the course of my nearly sixty-four years, I’ve attended my fair share of funerals. I remember each of them vividly. I was nine years old when I went to my first funeral and will never forget it. My folks had bought each of us four boys sport coats and ties. I remember dressing in my smart outfit; I remember splashing my dad’s English Leather on my face. I remember hopping in the car. I remember the solemn music that began the Mass. But most of all, I remember the casket being rolled down the aisle to the foot of the altar. I hadn’t expected that, and my heart jumped, my stomach churned, and suddenly I grasped the fact that death was real, inevitable, and terrifying. Today the smell of English Leather nauseates me as it still triggers the memory of that moment all these years later.
From that day on I’ve remained acutely aware of the meaning of the words of the priest as he draws cross-shaped ashes on my forehead on Ash Wednesday: “Remember man thou art dust, and unto dust though shalt return.”
As a Catholic, I am called by the Church to spend frequent time reflecting on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven or Hell. That’s not an easy task. Death is fearsome and we all recoil at the thought of our own mortality. The Church also calls us to pray that we’ll be spared an unprovided death which deprives us of the last rites of the Church: The Sacrament of the Sick (what used to be called the Last Rites or “extreme unction”), the opportunity to confess our sins and receive absolution, and final communion which is called “food for the journey (viaticum).”
In contemporary times, we’ve forgotten the dangers of sudden death. Most people I know hope for an unexpected death. I’ve heard it all. One guy told me he hopes to die from a lightning strike on the golf course. Another wants to die in an automobile crash while driving his expensive car. Still, another wants to depart by a quick heart attack while fishing. In the end, this evinces the modern attempt to ignore the reality of death, which Earnest Becker wrote about in his book, The Denial of Death. We want an easy death and just don’t want to think about the prospect of suffering as we depart on our final journey.
It seems to me that the desire to escape the risk of an unprovided death is, for the most part, an American phenomenon. The funeral industry has the goal of hiding death through elaborate efforts to make the corpse look alive and beautiful. The great English novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote a biting satire, entitled The Loved One, on the American way of death. I highly recommend the book, which is both hilarious and pointed. The ultimate theme of the book is that despite the best efforts of morticians and beauticians, a corpse cannot be made beautiful. That’s certainly my view (pardon the pun). As Thomas Aquinas reminds us, a corpse is not a full human being until the resurrection of the body.
Still, the Church requires that in most cases the body be displayed at the Mass for the Dead, both to remind us of the inevitability of death and that we are not just a free-floating soul, but a unity of body and soul.
We are animals, not angels. We die. And we will be judged by He Who Cannot Be Deceived. This is why I’m always amused by atheists who claim that Christianity is nothing more than an attempt to avoid the reality of death. Christians know that at death they’ll be called upon to account for themselves and that eternal loss is a real possibility.
So, how to go about contemplation of the last things?
Begin with simple prayers, particularly the Our Father. Next, try to carefully examine your conscience for the day just ending. There are many aids online. I find the Daily Examen developed by the Jesuits to be especially helpful, as it focuses the mind on both the daily positives and negatives in our lives. Also, periodically do a deeper examination of conscience and ask God to teach us to go deeper into the positives and negatives in our lives. There are many helpful guides online. I recommend this one.
You don’t have to be Catholic to do this. In fact, even atheists would profit from a periodic examination conscience. We all cause insult or injury to others. Reconciling with those you’ve hurt can bring joy to both of you. Remember the old saw that you don’t really know who your friends are until you see who shows up at your funeral.
I’m not an expert in this process. Like everyone else I struggle to accept the reality of death, though it’s the obvious truth that our brief time on this earth quickly passes. But there is great comfort in preparing for death. It may be the most important thing we do, for death comes like a thief in the night: It’s good to be ready.Published in