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It is not strictly true that the initials "R.I.P" stand for "rest in peace." The abbreviated Latin is, rather, "Requiescat in pace," where the verb is in what grammarians call the subjunctive mood. Thus the phrase expresses a wish and a prayer: "May he rest in peace."
The difference is not small. We wish and pray only for something which may not, or may not yet, be so. A loved one has died. His soul is therefore in peril. He is at risk. Perhaps he strove to love God, perhaps he did not. Perhaps we have moral certainty that he died in the state of grace, perhaps we do not. Even if we do, such is only our judgment, not God's, and his soul is now before the judgment seat of God. We dare not substitute our judgment for God's. How does his soul fare?
"Chances are" ... It is inappropriate to introduce probabilities here. What we can say is "it looks as though" or "it is reasonable to presume," and, when we consider the matter thus, it seems safest not to presume that the soul of our loved one has been immediately received into heaven. Only the perfect can see God. Only those who are totally pure, totally cleansed of fault, totally good, can enter into His presence: as the goodness of God tolerates not even the slightest trace of evil.
We can hope and have confidence that the soul of a Christian who, out of obedience and generosity, accepts death and the sufferings accompanying death, if aided by the sacraments, will emerge from that final baptism "washed whiter than snow." But usually, we must admit, we simply do not know. And the sufferings of purgatory are so great, despite the underlying joy, that to pray -- and pray hard -- would be the greatest act of continuing love that we can offer this deceased relative or friend.
It is not a childish piety -- but a child's solid piety -- to expect that when with the help of our prayers that soul is finally "purged" of evil and admitted into the bliss of heaven, this deceased relative or friend will, in turn, pray -- and pray hard -- for us. Such is the communion of the saints: doing to others as you would have done unto you is its lifeblood. The saints in heaven above all practice such love.
So, in November especially, pray for the dead. Draw up lists -- everyone you remember who has died -- and pray for them. Keep the list current. Mark down the dates of which friends and relatives died, and remember the anniversaries. (The pagan Romans tried to forget dates of death, considering them cursed, but an innovation of the early Christians was to mark these dates on their tombs, on the grounds that "by dying we are born to eternal life." A death date for a Christian is a precious "dies natalis," one's true birthday.) Visit cemeteries. Gain indulgences.
Death is always awful, in the strictest sense: death is the sort of thing which should, for us, induce awe. In some cases, I believe, death implies damnation, an eternal sojourn with devils, "where their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched." To ponder this is, at very least, frightening and creepy. For all of us, upon death the human soul joins with supernatural realities in a realm where lightning-quick angelic spirits, not human creatures, are at home. The soul goes to where the supernatural is natural, and the paranormal is normal. Eternal things are at stake. Hidden things are made plain. Spirits who truly "know" us through and through take charge over frail human souls which are benighted.
Death is therefore an occasion for us to show humility in the face of these giant realities. So do not botch it by neglecting, out of complacency and pride, the funeral Mass or burial! Show, O Man, that you know your place! Show that you realize, and give proper weight to, what is at stake! You who have wasted 10 hours already this week on the internet: please spend two hours in prayer at the end of someone's life! You perhaps won't hesitate to put aside three hours to watch a football game, which is ultimately meaningless: but can you be bothered to honor and seal a life, by your presence at a Holy Mass and beside a grave?
Let us show a good Christian sensibility, too, by preferring burial of the body over cremation. Cremation "does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body," our bishops have taught. How strange that in the time when we appreciate the "theology of the body," we turn away from reverence for the body of the deceased. Once again, our bishops: "This is the body once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life. ... Indeed, the human body is so inextricably associated with the human person that it is hard to think of a human person apart from his or her body."
Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University.