Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. February Group Writing On Advice: Time Flies, Remember Death

 

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 Group Writing
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  1. Front Seat Cat Member

    Mike – what a thoughtful and gut-wrenching post. Thank you for the inserts and the reminder that Ash Wednesday is next week. This time of year is weird. Phil, the groundhog, wakes up to fanfare and predicts an early spring. Our azaleas are starting to pop, this is my favorite time of year. I am also keenly reminded that this is the time of the mercy seat – will we sit in it and reflect to avoid future and eternal misery? It requires silence, reading, and blocking out the world. Your post is timely and thank you for writing about such a powerful topic, and the experience that changed you as a youth…. I hate funerals. Plus, a strange virus is causing fear throughout the world – are any of us ready for what you describe?

    • #1
    • February 18, 2020, at 2:31 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  2. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    Mike – what a thoughtful and gut-wrenching post. Thank you for the inserts and the reminder that Ash Wednesday is next week. This time of year is weird. Phil, the groundhog, wakes up to fanfare and predicts an early spring. Our azaleas are starting to pop, this is my favorite time of year. I am also keenly reminded that this is the time of the mercy seat – will we sit in it and reflect to avoid future and eternal misery? It requires silence, reading, and blocking out the world. Your post is timely and thank you for the inserts and a powerful topic. A strange virus is causing fear throughout the world – are any of us ready for what you describe?

    I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I’m not ready. Humility is the cure, I think. I try to avoid arrogance.

    • #2
    • February 18, 2020, at 2:35 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  3. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    This timely and timeless advice is part of our Group Writing Series under the February 2020 Group Writing Theme: “Advice.” Thanks to all who signed up, filling the month with advice of all sorts.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #3
    • February 18, 2020, at 2:51 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  4. EODmom Coolidge

    @mikerapkoch Thank you for this touching and timely essay. Death is much on my mind lately as a dear, very dear, friend -sweet Polly – died recently and we who love her grieve for her. Was she ready? I am sure so, as she put everything she had left into living long enough for her husband to be able to do what he had to do at the end of her life. The rest of us left behind were holding on as hard as we could, so were not ready at all. Will I be ready? I hope so -Polly’s death has prompted much very intimate and careful talk between EODDad and me and our son. We sometimes search for a meaningful discipline for Lent, but this year our own aging and mortality is on our minds. And arrogance- that perennial tag along making us feel that we are somehow ahead of God. Still working on that. When I wake in the night I’m always helped along when I meditate on one phrase of the Our Father – the one that’s behind what is keeping me up. It always helps. Thank you for this post. 

    • #4
    • February 18, 2020, at 4:21 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  5. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch

    EODmom (View Comment):

    @mikerapkoch Thank you for this touching and timely essay. Death is much on my mind lately as a dear, very dear, friend -sweet Polly – died recently and we who love her grieve for her. Was she ready? I am sure so, as she put everything she had left into living long enough for her husband to be able to do what he had to do at the end of her life. The rest of us left behind were holding on as hard as we could, so were not ready at all. Will I be ready? I hope so -Polly’s death has prompted much very intimate and careful talk between EODDad and me and our son. We sometimes search for a meaningful discipline for Lent, but this year our own aging and mortality is on our minds. And arrogance- that perennial tag along making us feel that we are somehow ahead of God. Still working on that. When I wake in the night I’m always helped along when I meditate on one phrase of the Our Father – the one that’s behind what is keeping me up. It always helps. Thank you for this post.

    Thank you for your kind reply. I’ll add Polly, her husband and family, and you and your family to my night prayers. God be with you.

    • #5
    • February 18, 2020, at 8:32 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  6. Hartmann von Aue Member

    So a few years ago, right after small group, a friend of ours named Ron Meyer had a massive heart attack when he and his wife were getting their baked goods ready for the farmer’s market the next morning. He was dead before his body hit the floor, the EMTs said later. He was 76, so it was not an unusually untimely death but it was still shocking. At the time our youth pastor and I discussed it. For Ron, it was just a step into eternity with his Creator and his Savior, but for us, it was the pain of departure. And there is nothing wrong with Christians who know the truth of eternal life to mourn those who pass from this one. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”, “Mourn with those who mourn. Rejoice with those who rejoice.” One problem I see in my branch of Christianity (I’m Pentecostal) is that we often invert this, which is spiritually harmful and emotionally false. Our Catholic and Messianic Jewish brothers in Jesus are much better at the mourning/rejoicing balance, I think. 

    • #6
    • February 19, 2020, at 12:49 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  7. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I just received an email ten minutes ago informing me that a gentleman I used to work with died suddenly overnight.

    And I was talking to my (92-year-old) mother last night, who told me she’s been to a funeral on 3 of the last 4 weekends.

    I think I need to sit down for a while.

    • #7
    • February 19, 2020, at 10:05 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  8. Bob Wainwright Member

    I’ve been meaning to read The Denial of Death. I’ve read so much about it, it almost seems I’ve read it. It was written by an atheist (I think) and many consider its premise to be atheistic, but it was actually recommended to me by a strong believer. Even from the standpoint of belief in God, it makes sense to realize that human beings go to great length to avoid the reality of their own deaths. 

    • #8
    • February 19, 2020, at 10:49 AM PST
    • 1 like