John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
It’s been said that the difference between Protestants and Catholics is that the former tend to be “either/or” (e.g., either “faith” or “good works”), while the latter tend to be “both/and” (e.g., both “Scripture” and “tradition”). So, if the adage above was a “both/and,” I could probably live with it: funerals are for the living and the dead.
Having, however, increasingly heard in recent years the platitude I chose as a title, I find a need to address it and unpack it.
November reminds us of the latter truth: this is the month Catholics pay special attention to the need to pray for the faithful departed. It is a time to remember that our notion of Church is not one-dimensional: my little parish in Edison or even on this Earth. The Church is those who are on their pilgrim way, those who have reached the Father’s House (heaven), and those who are still awaiting purification (Purgatory).
St. John Paul II spoke of our times as a particular contest between the culture of life and the culture of death, and rightly argued that we are in the midst of a pitched and lively battle for human dignity. But, in many ways, the culture of death holds significant sway. How else does one define a culture where prenatal capital punishment is deemed a Constitutional right? Where “medical assistance in dying” (i.e., doctors killing you) is also deemed a Constitutional right? Where the next “rights” advances are suggested to be euthanasia for minors or sexual sterilization of minors through “gender transitioning?”
Nevertheless, it’s a great paradox that, for all its advocacy of killing, the culture of death really doesn’t like to look death straight in the eye.
Give your kid the “right” to euthanasia? Of course! Take your kid to a funeral? How could you wreak such trauma?
Kill 60 million unborn children. No problem. Ask “where the bodies are” – and how much money groups like Planned Parenthood make on them: a “witch hunt.” (What do you think happens to all those “blobs of tissue?”) Demand a modicum of human dignity for those remains—as Indiana has done in demanding the burial or cremation of fetal tissue—and you are a zealous nutcase.
With the ever-growing popularity of cremation what, indeed, has happened to the funeral?
Funerals used to be about the dead. Death interrupted life. People found out about a death and went to a wake. Funerals upset schedules.
But, with technology (morgue freezers, embalming, cremation), death suddenly no longer has urgency. We can put off the funeral until the weekend – or until it’s convenient for a quorum of the family. Since we often bringing a box of ashes to the funeral that requires our imagination to see this as a person, the funeral has turned from real, physical mortality to mental memories. Descartes, we are yours.
Since suffering is no longer in vogue, it’s no longer “he died well,” but “he didn’t suffer.” Once Catholics prayed to avoid “a sudden and unprovided for death.” Now, it’s a compliment: “she went so quickly.”
Now, I’m no sadist, wanting people to suffer. But I have to ask: in our effort to eliminate suffering from the human lot (of which it is a part, because of sin), have we not also paved the way towards a euthanasia culture, especially when we sloppily elide palliation and killing? Have we also not impoverished our eschatology? Do hell or purgatory, with the notion of the “sense of pain,” make any sense to modern men? And if the avoidance of suffering is our leitmotif, what happens to sacrifice: why should I “offer up” a toothache “for the souls in Purgatory,” when my main motive is ensuring my own comfort?
And does this all not abet the notion of a God who cannot be imagined to be a Judge, who fills a heaven but—like some profligate landlord (or “unstewardly” bishop who hasn’t got the memo about closing inner city parishes), heats an otherwise unoccupied hell? Ah, yes, we have to maintain the idea of possible damnation, lest we fall into the heresy of universalism, but can we skate on its cusp by slipping too easily from “dare we hope that all men be saved?” into “why wouldn’t we presume it?”
Moreover, if we work with an (unstated) presumption that all are saved, lots of other things follow:
- Funerals shift from praying for the dead (whom we presume is in line for seconds at the banquet feast of heaven) to consoling ourselves (at a time mutually convenient);
- Funerals turn from reckoning with the deceased’ need for prayer to maudlin “recollections of life,” à la the worse of eulogy in lieu of intercession;
- The pendulum swings sharply to objective redemption (Christ’s Sacrifice enables all to be saved) while underplaying subjective redemption (I am still free to refuse the offer), and so the entire funeral liturgy is celebrated in white as “the wedding feast of the lamb” when, in fact, we are still caught in the middle between “Already and Not Yet.” (When did you last see a Catholic funeral using violet vestments? I won’t even ask if, somewhere in the rectory attic, there are black ones).
- By having shifted the focus of funerals from mortality to memory, the aspect of conversion—“today you, tomorrow maybe me”—is downplayed, if not lost. Again, the ugly truth of death as the “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26) is swept under the carpet. If we’re “celebrating” the deceased’s life and wink, wink, nod, nod, presuming God the Indulgent Father never allows a person to be damned, then why talk—at least not earnestly—about conversion when we’re all having a memento mori moment?
- In the end, how does the whole process subtly contribute to a decay of faith? Isn’t the cumulative effect a babbling about “going to a better place” and “he’s at peace” (whatever that means) suggest a hazy belief in the afterlife? Isn’t this what Josef Ratzinger meant by “silent apostasy,” what Michael Degnan defines as the “withering of a supernatural awareness and vocabulary in our experience of the world. As a result, faith gradually peters out into a helpful system of this-world ethics [that has]… the power to convert no one.” How do we ensure that our “he’s at peace” and “he’s gone to a better place” are not just pretty words said out of politeness rather than faith that (a) yes, X continues to live in some state beyond this world to which (b) he is called to give an account of the life he lived in which, (c) as we all know, there was both good and evil? Do we BELIEVE that? Or do we just pay it lip service?
Reckoning with that makes a funeral an event for both the dead and the living. Not doing so is an invitation to remove death’s sting not by belief in Christ’s Resurrection (in which, “in fear and trembling” I hope to share), but by quietly acquiescing in Peggy Lee’s old line: “is that all there is?”