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Amid The Fray

In defense of funerals

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Life is fleeting. It is an irony of a modern world where people are living longer than ever, but longevity is fleeting too.


"Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man." -- Mercutio, "Romeo and Juliet"

In the past two and a half months I've been to four funerals. Friends. A spouse of a friend. A child of a friend. It has been a cumulative sense of mortality and loss set against the accumulation of horrors that fill every daily newspaper.

"Memento mori." Remember that you must die. That was the Latin phrase slaves are said to have whispered in the ears of conquering generals in ancient Rome as an antidote to hubris.

Remembering is not the hard part these days. Each funeral has left me reflecting on all that is passing and transitory.

"Sic transit gloria mundi." Thus passes away the glory of this world. Life is fleeting. It is an irony of a modern world where people are living longer than ever, but longevity is fleeting too.

I find amusing the invariable news story reporting that coffee or kale or exercise will lead to some lesser percentage of mortality. The truest headline is simply this: We have a 100 percent chance of dying. There is nothing wrong with coffee or kale or exercise (well, perhaps with kale), but nothing enables us to cheat death.

The ancients had an unblinking grasp of this truth. Life was more obviously tenuous in a world without antibiotics or sterilization or GPS. They didn't shy away from what was inescapable. In Rome's famous chapel of bones, decorated with the remains of countless Capuchin monks, the signs read: "What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be."

Once we embrace this reality, it does tend to put things in perspective. I know that funerals are falling out of vogue, as are graves. Maybe, if everyone's travel plans work out, we moderns have a memorial service with photos and stories. We scatter ashes on a favorite beach or hillside, or store them somewhere in our house until someone else has to deal with them.

But there is a sobering beauty to the funeral Mass and the ritual procession to the gravesite. There is a wisdom to gathering in the church hall for casseroles and remembrances.

Each of the four Catholic funerals I attended were different. In one, the eulogy was eloquent. In another, the music was personal and beautiful. The third reflected an austere acceptance. The fourth was almost joyful in celebrating a courageous battle with illness and a final release from suffering. In none of them was there was rush to canonize, yet all shared a unifying faith in God's mercy.

After the latest funeral, I saw the first photos from the James Webb telescope capturing the apparently infinite number of galaxies going back 13 billion years. How does one not feel small and insignificant in this shimmering universe of planets and stars being born and dying all about us? And yet each funeral was an ode to the immense importance of one person, so loved and so missed already.

In our personal universe, a loved one's death leaves a black hole. It is never really filled. We bear this pain, we carry this grief, in faith that this is not the end.

On a route I bike weekly, I pass some graffiti: "This is not all there is." Indeed not. Our faith does not make pain and loss disappear. Our faith assures us, however, that there is more. God willing, there is a happy ending. We have a Savior who died so that we shall live. We see this now through a glass darkly. Yet during a funeral Mass, we are necessarily reminded that this truth is the most real.

- Greg Erlandson is director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.

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