Celebrity funerals and prayer for the dead

Death eventually comes for all of us -- no one actually gets out of here alive. Samuel Johnson aptly noted that our fear of death is so natural “that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.” As a baby boomer, born to parents of the great generation that experienced the Depression and the Second World War, I have long been attending more funerals than weddings, and now read the obituary pages to belatedly catch up with my contemporaries, or bid good-bye to icons of my youth.

The recent deaths of Michael Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Farrah Fawcett, Walter Cronkite and other celebrities serve as a reminder of Samuel Johnson’s observation: “To neglect at any time preparation for death, is to sleep at our post at a siege, but to omit it in old age, is to sleep at an attack.” We don’t want to think about it, but we need to prepare. Death is like taxes in that regard.

As Catholics, we believe that life is changed, not ended, and that after death comes judgment, then heaven, hell or purgatory. God is our all-merciful Father, and so we can hope; but he is also all-just, and so we should be rightly fearful. The season of autumn, with its falling leaves, is nature’s reminder of the inevitable fact of death.

October, the month dedicated to the Rosary, reminds us how frequently we pray in the “Hail Mary” that our Mother Mary “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Father Sal Ferigle used to say that when we come to die, if we were in the habit of praying the rosary, we should be able to say to our Mother, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times, to remember me now at the hour of my death.”

Evelyn Ryan, the subject of the wonderful biographical film “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” was a housewife who supported her large family by entering and winning jingle contests in the 1950s. She wrote a 25-word poem on prayer: “Every time I pass the church I stop and make a visit. So when I’m carried in feet first God won’t say, ‘Who is it?’”

November, which is just around the corner, is dedicated to prayer for the holy souls in purgatory, those of us who die in need of purification before we are ready to see God face-to-face in the glories of heavenly rapture. Which gets us to the main point of a Catholic funeral: prayer for the dead.

One of the things that struck me at Sen. Kennedy’s funeral at Mission Church was the prayers of the faithful that were offered by the Senator’s grandchildren. There were prayers offered for the Senator’s vision, for his program and the like, but nary a prayer for the happy repose of his immortal soul. Fortunately, the rubrics of the liturgy provided that at other junctures.

Of course, though the senator did some good in his life of public service, which it was proper to acknowledge, he was not always a paragon of virtue who was bound to already be in heaven, which would make such prayers useless. Nor, in spite of his sins and misdeeds, at least some of which he was sorry for, was he certifiably in hell, which would also make prayer useless. (The Church doesn’t make such certifications in any case.)

Prayers were still needed, offered with hope. Praise from presidents and relatives and churchmen would do him no good, if, like the rich man in the Gospel parable, he were consigned to Sheol, or faced with a huge bill of temporal punishment due to sin in purgatory. Prayer more than praise is what the situation calls for, regardless of who it is.

I remember when Dr. Joseph Stanton died a number of years back. This saintly father of a large family was a founding father of the pro-life movement in Massachusetts and the country, and had done an amazing amount of good in his life, in spite of his disability from polio. He asked that there not be eulogies at his funeral, and that his priest son just preach on the Resurrection of Christ as grounds for our hope.

St. Josemaria Escriva, canonized in 2002, had asked at one point that his gravestone be inscribed “Sinner,” as a reminder for people to pray for him. Though his successor as prelate of Opus Dei had the stone say “Father” because “sinner” did not fairly sum up what this saint was and stood for, the saint’s own humility in soliciting prayers was apparent at every juncture of his life. We pray in the Our Father, “Forgive us our trespasses,” and ask Mary to “pray for us sinners.” With prayer, and only with prayer, can sinners become saints. May Ted Kennedy and the rest “requiescant in pace.”

Dwight G. Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.