National Catholic Register


DAYS OF THE Living Dead

BY John M. Grondelski

November 18-24, 2001 Issue | Posted 11/18/01 at 2:00 PM


In November Catholic piety traditionally focuses on the dead as the Church offers special Masses for the faithful departed. The readings at Mass during this last month of the liturgical year have a strong eschatological cast, too. The high point of this annual commemoration, of course, comes Nov. 1 and 2, All Saints and All Souls Days, when the Church Militant on earth looks with faith toward the Church Triumphant in heaven while doing its part for the Church Suffering in purgatory. But the Church calls us to remember the dead, in a special, heightened way, all month long.

Events of the past two months have led to many non-Catholic Americans also turning their thoughts towards the dead. For the families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, this November is no doubt proving particularly painful, especially in cases where the bodies of loved ones have not yet been found. The traditional end-of-the-year family celebrations — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year — will all be sadder. At a time like this, solidarity with our grieving neighbors is especially important.

Catholics pray for the faithful departed not just out of benevolence, but also out of self-interest: Thinking of them reminds us to ask where we are headed. A rhyme I found in a graveyard in Brittany this year summed it up: Priez pour nous trepasses/Car un de ces jours aussi /Vous en serez/Soiez en paix!

It means: “Pray for us departed, for one of these days you will be one, too. Go in peace!”

Amid the tasks of praying for the dead and reflecting on the meaning of life, Catholics might want to spend an evening this month with a classic film. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's 1957 The Seventh Seal, a powerful meditation on the meaning of life and death, is filled with many memorable scenes. Bergman himself said it was “one of the few films really close to my heart.” Video stores should have it in their classic or foreign film sections, and film sellers like stock it.

Once to Die

The main characters of the film are a knight (Max von Sydow) and Death (Bengt Ekerot). The knight has just returned to Sweden after a disillusioned decade in the Crusades. As the film opens, he is lying on his native shore and Death approaches. (Ekerot's face will long linger with you as Death personified.) Death wants to take the knight, but the knight buys time by challenging Death to a game of chess.

As the game progresses and the film moves on, the knight continues on his way home through a country in the throes of the Plague. Death is everywhere and it is nearby. A man dying of plague who meets the knight and his party in the forest eloquently plays out human powerlessness in the face of mortality. While he begs them to approach him, they must fend him off to stay alive themselves. The dying man wants nothing but water and not to be alone, yet he is cast back upon himself. Death is always individual, always highly personalized.

En route home, the knight encounters all types of people. His squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand) has long ago lost his faith. He gazes upon the decadence and decay surrounding him with a cynicism that strips away delusions but offers no hope: Life is tough and then you die. One of the members of a traveling troupe runs off with the wife of the village blacksmith. It isn't love as much as mere sexual release. In his last scene, the lothario climbs up into a tree to evade the cuckolded husband, convinced he can go on with his “eat, drink and be merry” lifestyle — until Death comes along and literally chops his tree down. A young girl is burned as a witch, and she persists in her delusions until, as the flames lap at her stake, one sees in her eyes the question: “What now?” Death sits below her gibbet, watching.

The knight also meets a family, part of the traveling troupe. The husband is a minstrel, an innocent man prone to visions. A wife and infant son accompany him. Eventually, they join up with the knight's party making its way through the forest. As they travel, the knight once again encounters Death at the chess-board. This time, however, he does not continue the game; he knocks it over to distract Death and, thereby, allow the little family to slip away. Some have seen in that family an image of Jesus, Mary and Joseph on the way to Egypt.

No One Sits Out the Dance of Death

In the final scenes, the knight and the remainder of his party reach his castle. As they sit down to eat, Death knocks at the door. We never see Death in this last scene; we only see his victims as they stand and introduce themselves. Their introductions are awkward, so banal compared to the moment. What else can mortal man do but stammer as eternity beckons?

The film closes with the wandering minstrel, his family at his side, recounting his last vision. He describes the Grim Reaper leading the knight, his wife, squire, and the other castle guests over a hilltop in the “Dance of Death,” a dance no one can sit out. The minstrel's wife writes it off as just her husband's vivid imagination, but the scene of Death, carrying his sickle and leading his party away, hands all linked, will remain with the viewer for a long time.

Bergman's knight, like Bergman himself, wrestles with the problem of faith. He once believed and somehow still wants to, but he's seen too much of human depravity to lapse into a puerile faith. Yet Death is always silent; it gives no answers. As Hans Urs von Balthasar notes: The mystery of death echoes in Christ's cry on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But no human answers can satisfy that forlorn cry; only a faith tested and true will.

Like Bergman's knight, many of our fellow Americans are struggling today to make sense of death.

Whether they lost somebody in the bombings or are just afraid when the postman calls, they are searching for sense, for meaning. This November, let's not shy from giving account of the hope that is in us.

John M. Grondelski, a moral theologian, writes from Warsaw.