He dwells among us: Keeping death before us

Do not neglect the beauty and comfort of a Catholic funeral Mass

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

“Go to Joseph!” (Gn 41:55) These words of urgent counsel were spoken by Pharaoh to those seeking relief in ancient Egypt from the great drought and famine that afflicted the land. In this Joseph of the Old Testament (Gn 37-50), we have a beautiful foreshadowing of St. Joseph in the New Testament. As the Old Testament patriarch was entrusted by Pharaoh with feeding the people with the bread of their survival, so God entrusted to St. Joseph the “Bread of Life” for our eternal salvation. Because tradition holds that St. Joseph died in the arms of Jesus and Mary, the Church encourages us to “Go to Joseph” and entrust ourselves to him as the “patron of a happy death.”

It is said that if we should keep before us daily the thought of our own death, how differently we might live. Twice in my life of nearly 60 years — in 2009 and 2015 — I have had a neardeath experience. But with all the distractions of our materialistic culture infected by secular humanism, the temptation to think only of our earthly life is great.

But when we walk into any Catholic church, we can’t help but be confronted by the mystery of death — the large crucifix depicting Our Savior’s agonizing death, the Stations of the Cross on the walls, the altar of sacrifice and the words we hear in every Mass: “This is my body … This is the chalice of my blood.” Even the celebration of baptism reminds us of our mortality, bathed in the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. In baptism, the white garment of our dignity that we are clothed with will again be seen in the form of the white funeral pall that will one day cover our casket. For it symbolizes the wedding garment that we must strive to bring unstained to the eternal banquet. Even praying of the “Hail Mary” is a reminder of the help we need, “now and at the hour of our death.”

The daily thought of my own mortality gives me all the more reason to “Go to Joseph.” God entrusted his two most precious gifts — Jesus and Mary — to St. Joseph. He was the first to welcome Mary and the child in her womb “into his home” (Mt 1:20), and he helps us to welcome them always into the home of our heart. As he built a home for Jesus and Mary, so he helps us, as a spiritual carpenter, to be “built into a spiritual house.” (1 Pt 2:5-6) Would that the home of our heart resemble that of a magnificent cathedral fashioned with the help of this great saint!

It is said that the health of a society can be seen in the measure in which it honors the dead. One of the works of mercy most often overlooked is “bury the dead.” But we shouldn’t think of this in just the literal way. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) presents the consistent teaching of the Church about the proper burial of our loved ones — “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the resurrection. The burial of the dead … honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.” (2300)

Attending funerals, particularly of those who we might not have had any personal friendship with, and offering prayers and the Divine Mercy Chaplet for the deceased are beautiful works of mercy and love. Best-selling Catholic author Father Michael Gaitley, reflecting on the works of mercy in his book You Did It to Me, reminds us that praying outside of abortion clinics is another way of praying for the deceased.

Many a Catholic and non-Catholic have commented to me after attending a funeral Mass and the burial of a loved one or friend how comforting and beautiful they found the liturgy, prayers, and traditions of the Church in the midst of their tears. But a very sad trend that our priests are seeing more and more of today is the forgoing of a funeral Mass in lieu of some graveside prayers for the deceased. It should not have to be the case, but let your family members know that you absolutely wish to have a funeral Mass when you die. The beauty and comfort of a Catholic funeral Mass, and the traditions and rituals of our faith, are expressions of the power of the cross of Christ and His resurrection — don’t neglect these!

Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, the longstanding practice of burying the body of the deceased in a grave or tomb, in imitation of the burial of the body of Jesus, continues to be encouraged as a sign of Christian faith. Our Catholic cemeteries, blessed and consecrated, receive our mortal bodies, which once were purified in the waters of baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, housed our immortal souls, and were tabernacles for the Lord Himself at each eucharistic Communion.

Thus, upon death our bodies require a dignified burial. Again, in faith, we believe and profess that: “By death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul. Just as Christ is risen and lives forever, so all of us will rise at the last day.” (CCC, 1016)

Our Catholic cemeteries are sacred places joined to our Catholic creed. They are places of prayer that remind us of our final destination: eternal union with God Whom we have come to know and to love in this life so as to live with Him forever in heaven, “the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” (CCC, 1024)

I encourage the faithful to consider very seriously our Catholic cemeteries when making preparations for death and ensuring that one’s burial reflects our dignity as the children of God, now called home to the Father. I don’t know when God will call me home, but when He does, I pray this simple prayer will be on my lips — “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I love you.” St. Joseph, patron of a happy death, pray for us.

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