One of the challenges in our modern society is a difficulty in knowing how to handle death.
Understandably, most of us might not think about it until our time is very short, if we have any time to prepare for it at all. But as for the theology of death, many of us still can have a hard time what to make of it. Indeed we had a whole course at seminary on the very topic of death, heaven, hell and purgatory. And while one bulletin column is far too small to do the topic of death and the afterlife justice, these are important things to think about, especially in November, a month where the Church as a special focus on them.
For one, as a quick refresher of what we mean by heaven, hell and purgatory. Heaven is where we are with God forever; and many people are there. Some are canonized and we declare them in heaven; many more are known only to God, the people we celebrate on All Saint’s Day. In heaven, the joy and happiness are perpetual as we are with God forever.
There are some who reject God entirely. God loves, but it is not a forced love. The reality of this is a consequence we call hell; the absence of God. It is eternal frustration because a person is away from God forever.
And as for purgatory, this is often a source of confusion for people. I’ve never much cared for the term “poor souls in purgatory” that you sometimes have heard people pray for, not because we should not pray for people after death, but “poor souls” implies that it is some horrible state. Far from it. When we die, we are no longer in time. Time is an element of this earth; hence we can pray at a cemetery and have earthly remains of someone while that person can still be in heaven too. It could be the case that a person loves God deeply, but has a nagging sin they have struggled with, or needs to take a final step or two to have their love perfected. It is not a matter of “doing time” or waiting, rather for those who pass through purgatory, it is God’s presence there who helps a person take those final steps to become perfect.
What we see in this is our connection to our loved ones and how it remains strong. We pray for our dead in the event they are continuing on their journey home to heaven. Of course, they may already be in heaven. And they are probably praying for us too on our journey as it continues through life.
Through it all is the love of God. This love is given to us time and time again, and when we die, that love is still there to welcome us home, and enable us to make the final few steps to get home to heaven. This means we move forward in hope.
But it also means we move forward together with our loved ones. Death impacts us all. But we also need to know how to deal with it properly.
You may have heard the term “gone but not forgotten.” On the one hand, a person is gone physically when they die, and that pain must be acknowledged. You never really get over loss entirely until you are reunited in heaven.
But on the other hand, a person is not just a collection of memories. Eulogies for instance are not allowed at Catholic Funeral Masses. One can have words of remembrance which are offered prior to the Mass starting. And this is not to be cold, but rather because the purpose of the funeral Mass is to offer worship to God for Christ’s victory over death, to comfort those who remain, and to pray for the soul, not to hear a a speech about the person’s life or accomplishments. This is why memory sharing is more appropriate at the wake or at a funeral luncheon. Memories are well and fine, but the person who is in the casket is not gone. During the Mass itself, we hear readings of the Resurrection, of hope, and of how life is eternal.
This needs to continue after the Mass though too.
On the one hand, I have memories of people I’ve lost I think about all the time, and often reminisce with family and friends about them. But I also know that I am forever connected to these wonderful people who I might not see any more physically, but who journey with me every day. I pray for them every single night in my evening prayers. I believe they pray for me. And I take what I gained from my time with them on this earth, and try to emulate those things into my daily life. The things they can’t quite teach you in a theology book: how to have a sense of humor, how to be a person of joy, how to think of others first, how to be patient. These are things the loved ones I’ve lost have shown me, and because of them I know that I can keep on striving to become a better person because they have truly shown me how to do just that.
The reality is on the one hand we are only here for a little while, as much as we might want to ignore that. But the truth is also the words of the two men in dazzling garments at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday: “why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). Jesus is risen, and we will rise too to be with Him forever. But just because we go to Him, does not mean that for those of us who hope to go to heaven too that we are separated because of death. Quite the contrary. Death does not have the last word. Jesus does – and may that fill us with hope. And just as Jesus comes to us in a different way today than He did when He walked the earth physically 2000 years ago, the same is true for our loved ones. I may not be able to enjoy my grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, or watch the World Series with my grandpa any longer. But I know they live on, and pray for me as I pray for them, and are a part of my journey every single day. So are your loved ones too. So visit a cemetery. Pray for them. Remember the good times, but also remember all that you learned from them. And remember that one day, you will see them again – but until that day comes, they are living on in you too in how you put into practice all that they showed you about how to truly live.