Last weekend after each of the four parish Masses, and later in the day at Cheviot, I spent time with parishioners at some of the cemeteries in the parish.
Each visit was a significant occasion. These gatherings were prompted by last week’s feasts of All Saints and All Souls, and by the opportunity that November gives us, as the month of Holy Souls, to pray more earnestly for those who have died.
It is only relatively recently that flowers have become the gift of choice for at the time of a funeral. In years past people would take time to write and post a personal note of consolation and love.
The ideal was always the gift of one’s presence, to be with the family of the deceased at a funeral. If this was not possible, the thought and time given to prepare a hand-written note was a way of being fully present especially in the moments of the personal touch of writing. These visits or notes were never easy, but this added to their significance and value.
With the commercialism of the flower growing / arranging / selling industries, a click of the credit card on computer or phone to order and send flowers has become the most common way of saying “I care but I can’t be there.”
You will have your own ideas about the best way to express sympathy at a time of grief. I’d just like to offer a thought about the limited effectiveness of flowers as a gift at a time of death.
Cut flowers are beautiful for a day or two. They speak of a present reality that has a great beauty but which is superficial and passing. Within hours of being cut, flowers are on a fast-track to death. Preservative in the water can prolong the life of the flowers, but the simple reality is that these beautiful flowers are now dying. Over the next few days, the one who recieves them will witness yet another visible reminder of life passing into death.
It is now expected that a wreath of flowers will be placed on every casket at a funeral. Many people choose to place a flower on the casket or in the grave at a funeral. Cemetery caretakers often move the soil from the grave out of sight, and cover any hint of dirt with artificial green carpet. As a token gesture, a box of pre-washed, sand might be offered.
In a family compromise a couple of years ago a cross of greenery rested on my father’s casket in the church. Then at the cemetery, this cross was placed on the grave.
But death is a reality that cannot be disguised or hidden by artificial veils and momentary distractions of fleeting beauty. The rites, rituals, texts and prayers of a Catholic funeral prompt us to face the reality of death.
The process of good grief leads us to hope.
Eulogies focussing on the life of the one who has died, flowers, poems, popular recorded songs, stories, are an essential part of the days leading up to the day of burial. But on this last day, Catholics move to a new stage that brings hope to the pain of our loss.
A ‘celebration of a life’, with flowers and eulogies is in no way wrong. But these alone are not the most helpful way to lead family and friends to experience Christian hope.
Death is not the end. Death for the Christian is life changed, not ended. Death is in fact the birth into the life for which we were all created. The signs and symbols, prayers and rituals of these days will serve either to focus family and friends on their loss and grief, or (as is the Christian hope) these will help those who grieve to move beyond these difficult days to know that the one they love is now in God’s kind keeping.
The first funerals that I celebrated as a priest were almost thirty years ago on the West Coast. There I experienced a very hands-on involvement with the reality of death. Most often the body of the deceased lay in state in the home with family and friends gathering, sharing stories, eating and drinking, laughing and crying.
Then, on the day of burial, the funeral Mass carried the grieving family through this most difficult of days with familiar and time-tested prayers and rituals. The most visible sign on the casket was the crucifix, the ultimate sign of live triumphing over death. At the cemetery after the casket was rested in the grave, soil was first sprinkled then shovelled to fill the grave. Very often this happened in the rain. The family were laying to rest the one they loved.
Twenty years later when I first visited the Chatham Islands I saw the same hands-on approach. These people of the land know that new life emerges from the seed and soil that appear dead. The flowers look alive but are in fact dying, the soil that looks dead, is in reality, fertile.
In the same way the body that now appears dead, will, by God’s mercy, and helped by our prayers, rise to the fulness of life.
The Old Testament book of II Maccabees (12:46) reminds us that “it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they be loosed from their sins.”
There is an ancient practice of asking a priest to offer a Mass offered for the dead. This is the greatest gift we can give to the one who has died and to their family.
A Mass card, with a brief note of love and sympathy is the ultimate gift to the family of anyone (Catholic or other) who has died. The Mass is the greatest treasure we have. At a time of grief we have the opportunity to share this ultimate treasure.