In the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, after the princess, Briar-Rose, pricks her finger, everyone in the castle falls instantly into a deep sleep, life in the palace comes to a grinding halt. If someone was speaking, he is frozen in midsentence. “The king . . . remained with his mouth open, in the act of uttering a word.”
There are two events in everyone’s life which beg for the world to stop and take notice—for everything to come to a complete stop, such as in Sleeping Beauty. When a child is born, the parents’ joy is overwhelming. With tears of ecstatic joy, their souls cry out, “Look here! See what has happened! Don’t you know the incredible miracle that has just occurred! Our baby has been born! Celebrate our wonder!”
The other event, however, is far more painful. How much more difficult is the heart wrenching sorrow of when someone who has touched our lives has died. Nothing can fill that void. Overcome with grief and unquenchable tears of sorrow, the soul cries out in immeasurable pain and anguish, “Don’t you know the tragedy that has just taken place? We have lost a loved one?” In that moment, the soul begs for the world to stop and take notice, even for a brief time.
And that is one of the many purposes of a funeral; to stop and take notice, to pause and reflect on the fleeting passage of time, to embrace the preciousness of human life, and especially that unique person. In the short span of three weeks, three individuals, who I have known in one way or another, passed away. As I witnessed the most dramatic of the three funerals, I could not help but compare this funeral with all of the others that I had experienced. Funerals, for one reason or another, evoke a jumble, tumbled up mess of intense emotions.
I remember one funeral where the young mom had brought up her little daughters to say good bye to their grandma. How does a little girl say goodbye to an urn? It contrasted with one of the most touching moments at my father’s funeral when my two-year-old daughter, Kateri, spontaneously kissed grandpa goodbye.
I remember another funeral where my combative, atheist uncle invited a Lutheran minister to my aunt’s burial, where the minister claimed that my aunt and uncle were life-long, good practicing Lutherans.
Then there is the funeral I was not able to attend: My generous, sweet cousin, who was murdered by her boyfriend before he killed himself—too heartbreaking to ponder.
Without a doubt, a Catholic funeral is for praying for the soul of the deceased—“She [The Church] offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of his grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory” (CCC 1683). We pray for the repose of the soul in the hope of the resurrection. The white “garment of salvation” that the infant wears in Baptism transforms into the pall that covers the casket, representing the new life in the resurrection of Jesus.
But how do we get there? As a friend and I discussed, people will go to greater lengths to put a living will together, than putting their souls in order. That can be a rather delicate conversation to have with a seriously sick or elderly person, after all we are not insensitively saying, “When are you going to die?” More importantly, “Are you ready to meet your Lord?” But who wants to talk about that.
And how does one approach that topic with a dear relative, who has misconceptions about the Church, priests, or the Faith? What if the person closest to the sick or elderly person or the appointed guardian doesn’t believe in confession or anointing of the sick or even hates the Church? What if the person making the funeral arrangements for the Catholic is not Catholic or not a practicing Catholic and is totally clueless?
That was the situation for my Great Uncle who was an active in his church for many years as an usher, parish treasurer, member of the festival committee, and a Knight of Columbus. It was through the last minute, scrambled efforts of others, not his guardian, that he received anointing of the sick, a wake and a memorial mass. Friends and relatives were not allowed to come to his burial, and there was no funeral mass.
Of the three “funerals” that I recently attended, one was dramatically different, different from so many others. In fact, many afterwards, would use social media to describe it as the most beautiful funeral they had ever attended. When we left the hustle and bustle of the city noise with its whining police siren’s, whizzing motorcycles, and roaring busses, we entered a sanctuary of peace. Here we were enveloped by the beauty of the church’s vaulted ceilings, the light streaming through the colorful stained glass windows, the many saint statues atop side altars, imploring us to sanctity, and the tabernacle, front and center, ensconced in the intricately carved altar, inviting us to come and pray and rest our hearts into his merciful one. The church sheltered us from the chaos outside as it embraced us in a profound sense of peace.
Every pew was filled with those who sought solace, or offered comfort and consolation, and all prayed for God’s rich and abundant mercy. The young man died at 11:00 p.m. on February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. 11 days later at 11:00 a.m., those who knew him, and, or his family, came to his wake and funeral. He was born with heart complications and had heart surgery already when he was two days old, yet lived for 23 years.
When the casket closed, it felt like the banging close of the tomb, symbolized during Holy Week Tenebrae. Never more would mother, father, brother, sister, relative, friend, or fiancée look upon his face.
The strains of the pipe organ and the four part harmony of the choir filled the church with the entrance chant, “Requiem Aeternam” and then the congregation sang the entrance hymn, “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.” Later we would hear “Lux Aeterna,” Victoria’s “Ave Maria” and “In Paradisum.”
Swinging the thurible back and forth, the first altar “boy” (a college seminarian) solemnly walked down the aisle as clouds of incense, the perfumed prayers of the faithful, floated up to heaven. He was followed by another altar boy carrying a golden crucifix, held high. Twenty altar boys led the procession, which included a deacon, seven priests, and a bishop.
I thought of the song “Lift High the Cross,” the cross held high as a reminder of our faith. As the procession moved forward, my eyes were drawn to another crucifix, the huge crucifix, which rested above the back altar. Beneath the crucifix, stood the sorrowful mother on one side, gazing at her rejected son, and St. John, the beloved disciple, on the other. Deliver us from the fear of the cross. Let us not reject it.
We continuously stumble and fall under the crushing weight of the cross. We are not able to lift ourselves through our own abilities. As St. Therese of Lisieux implores us, when we become like little children, our heavenly father looks down to lift us up. The homily was a reminder that our Blessed Mother stood, Stabat Mater.
As I looked down from the choir loft in the back of the church, I surveyed the people crowding the church. I saw many in the Body of Christ who were suffering: a doctor with thinning air indicative of his chemo for his brain cancer, a mom of six children with stage 4 breast cancer, more than one dad in need of work, families that were broken-hearted because their children were not practicing their faith, families with young children with health challenges, other families that were not able to have children, and still other families that had lost children, brothers, sisters or parents.
After the mass had ended, the closing prayers said, the final procession with the casket, family, long line of altar servers—one swinging the thurible—deacon, priests and bishop had left the church, the unexpected, mournful cry of bagpipes began. The rich, full melody of “Amazing Grace” powerfully resonated throughout the church. The tears could not be kept back any longer.
And as if that was not enough, after the last note of the bagpipes had faded away, someone spontaneously began “Salve Regina”, the hymn that St. Anthony’s often closes mass with on Sunday. That lone voice was soon joined by many others, seeking the consolation of our heavenly queen, as we were “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”
In the midst of that great sorrow, a gentle peace settled. I thought of the Blessed Mother covering us with her mantle “as a hen gathers her young under her wings” (Matthew, 23:37).
It happened on a Tuesday. Someone somewhere was born and someone died. Amazingly the world moved on as though nothing had happened, nothing had changed. Yet something had changed. Someone held in the palm of God’s hand, died. In God’s eyes, that person had experienced the fullness of life. The heavenly Father said come home to me.