We have discussed the certainties of heaven and hell, as well as the possibilities of purgatory and even of limbo in our last few morceaux on the topic of death. Now we will begin to focus on how the Church deals with death in its funeral liturgies.
Before considering the ceremonies of funerals, wakes and burials, however, it’s important to start with a consideration of the purposes for our Christian worship on the occasion of death. Why we do things helps us understand what we do. So it seems to me that the main reasons we even have funeral rituals and services are two: first, we pray for the dead, and second, we motivate ourselves, the living.
As I mentioned in last week’s ti morceau, it is a time-honored practice of the Church is to pray for those who have died. Being departed from this world and so no longer able to “help themselves” by works of religion and charity, the souls of those who still need purification of defects and to “make up for their sins” are aided by our prayers for them. We beg God to have mercy on them, and to assist in their being purged of any remaining faithlessness, misunderstanding, sin and weakness. We can apply the graces of the sacraments, of our charity, and of other pious works (such as penance and mortifications like fasting), which otherwise we might beg to benefit ourselves personally, instead to benefit those who died in faith but due to sin are still awaiting entrance into eternal happiness.
Although rarely referred-to as a “Requiem Mass” nowadays, what is officially called the Funeral Mass today is indeed nonetheless celebrated “for the repose of the soul” of the one who has died. “Repose” and “rest” are translations of the Latin word “requiem.” The many blessings of the Mass are applied to the departed one, for his or her benefit.
In this funerals are also for us who remain, the living. Given the inevitability of death, gathering to pray for the dead is also encouraging to us, since very few of us likely are already saints, ready for instant entrance directly into God’s presence when our last breath comes. Purgatory is therefore a helpful doctrine of commonsense compassion, but also full of confidence, joy and eternal hope. We recognize the importance of continuing to journey through this world with hearts set on the world to come. And when we die – assuming that few of us are so desperately evil as to reject God forever and so choose to go to hell – we can take comfort in the fact that the community of the Church will continue to pray that God will complete His work of grace in us even then. The Lord mercifully continues to will, after all, that the faithful departed come to life, joy and peace in His presence.
So as our prayers for the dead comfort them if and as they still long for heaven, so too can those prayers of ours be a credit to our faith. “It is a holy and wholesome thing to pray for the dead,” the Bible says (in 2 Macc 12:45) and so we do it!