Thursday, 21 November 2019 14:36

The power of the dead is not fiction

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After parents, relatives or friends die; it is respectful to bury them well and where possible to visit and clean their graves regularly. Instead of faltering a prayer in fear, it is good to silently address personal thoughts to them and even bring them news about important events in the family like weddings, ordinations, baptisms, new born babies or how children are doing at school. If any of the close relatives is going through difficulties or has been ill, is appropriate to ask for their guidance and prayers on his or her behalf. If one has just returned from an overseas trip, it is in order to tell them where one has been, as though to say I wish they had been there.

This may not be necessarily a religious tradition or superstitious because the dead are in fact dead, they can’t communicate. However, regular communion with the dead is very much an integral part of any human culture. I suppose one of the reasons our families are strong is because we don’t easily let go of our dead ancestors. We don’t treat them as dust; we can’t imagine them as bones or as ashes. Long after they have died, they retain a vivid presence in our lives. We wish them to be around to look after us although we don’t necessarily want to see them. We are content to feel traces of them in the objects they left behind, or to catch fleeting glimpses of them in the faces and mannerisms of our siblings and children.

Despite the festive atmosphere and homilies that envelope our Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls, there is something that does not change in the way we treat our dead. Most of us incidentally fear the dead. We continue to provoke to affect our lives negatively which should not be the case. All those who die in Christ, continue to live with us in faith. We need to seek their love instead of dreading their wrath. We need to let them connect with us as honest advisers because they have seen it all. When we request for intentions of Holy Masses in their memory, we are not simply appeasing, but appreciating them and praying for their souls to rest in eternal peace while assuring them that we are living our lives in a way that would make them proud. We draw comfort from being able to unburden ourselves by their presence.

Remembering the dead especially during the month of November for those of us who are Roman Catholics, is not because we want to blame them for leaving us with many problems or to resent the vicious role they may have played in the misunderstandings and conflicts that have split the family. When misfortune strikes, we don’t need to ask if they might know the reason and if they could help. Instead, prayer is the time to beg for their forgiveness if we had offended them and ask them to intercede for us where need be.

Such practices are typical of our well founded Catholic Doctrine and are clearly grounded in a notion of life as consisting of the physical body and a spirit/soul that does not perish with the body at the moment of death. Almost all religions have something to say about this dichotomy. Most of them assume the body dies but the spirit lives on. Others say both body and spirit die, but the latter may be restored to life at the right time depending on how well it conducted itself in its lifetime. It is through this spiritual concept that we are able to conceive of eternal life after death. This is why death occupies a central place in every religion.

It is generally believed that Christianity offers the best preparation for death. Our Catholic teaching especially through Catholic Catechism offers a concept of life defined by two forms of time. There is God’s time known as eternity and finite time of human life. Humans have the chance to participate in God’s time through the soul. Death is certain, though we don’t know when and how it will come for each one of us. We may not know what will happen to our souls after our death, but the Catholic faith prescribes a way of living that makes God’s mercy to open a path of redemption and eternal life. All this is expressed loudly in the prayers and the rituals for the dead. These forms of communication employ the semantics of salvation and are meant to ease the soul’s journey to God’s Kingdom. Without the concept of the soul, death would have the power to erase all human life accountability. The idea of the soul is not exclusive to the religions of the book. Rather, it is found in nearly all religions and beliefs.

But for the non-believers who pretend that death is where everything ends, the prayers, rituals and incantations accompanying the dead would have no meaning. In some circles, friends and loved ones might wish to celebrate a person’s life and publicly express their grief without the protocols supplied by religion but it has never been easy to hold such memorials without being confronted by the awkwardness that summons the awareness of what is missing. It was in this context that the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas once bewailed the modern age’s failure to find a suitable replacement for the religious way of coping with the final rites of passage which brings physical life to a close. The fact remains that religion, which is quite obvious has not lost its social significance under modernity. If there is a question that disturbs non-believers is death and its eternal life! The suffocation of the religion can never make the truth useless.

The truth is that faith has not retreated into the private sphere, as had been predicted. Indeed, today there is a resurgence of public religions. What is becoming the norm in modernity, however, is the view that a religious description of the world including this one about death is only one of many available descriptions. However as death affects everyone everywhere, we need to have a clear agreement that knowing its true ways is not optional. The truth is that the second day of November in every calendar year, the Catholic Church has designated it as the feast of All Souls. This feast celebrates the past memories of all faithful departed who are important to the living human beings. Unlike the feast of All Saints, it is not a holy day of obligation. In the West, the tradition of setting aside a day of prayer and commemoration for the dead dates back to St. Odilo of Cluny, who established it at his abbey in France in the 10th century. From there, the practice spread until it was officially adopted everywhere in the 14th century. Traditions associated with the feast include placing the names of those to be remembered on the altar at Mass and visiting the cemeteries where dead loved ones lie. With time, the entire month of November became informally known as the month of the dead. The third millennium generation is not especially comfortable with death. From the hospital to the mortuary, people make their passage out of this world through a series of specialized procedures including postmortem, cleaning, sterilizing and dressing; all discreetly hidden from the living whom they might cause discomfort, but this can never make the dead a fiction.

The reality is that dying in the sanitary environment of a hospital is a relatively new concept. In former days, dying at a hospital was reserved for people who had nothing and no one. Given the choice, a person wanted to die at home in their bed, surrounded by friends and family. But times have changed, and these days, of the half a million people who die each year in Uganda, only a small percent do so in their home although a big percent say they would like to die at home if given the choice so that their dear ones are around them. Today the dying are hidden away and death is made an alien, an abnormal occurrence, a pathogen to be contained. There is nothing familiar or intimate about death in our current approach which is a pity.

This view of death is not without precedent, of course. The Bible refers to the “angel of death” Exodus 12:23 who visits the houses of the Egyptians and passes over those of the Israelites. Death is truly otherworldly here, not merely a natural process, but an irruption of the judgment of God, destructive and implacable. The separation of the body and soul recalls original sin as the pinnacle of all its consequent losses and grief. It is not something we simply come to terms with; it is violent; it is a curse. Yet all the clean, bright, clinical efficiency of our methods of managing death seems to suggest that it is a curse we can escape, an unfortunate accident for which there exists a specialized industry. Nor is the funeral industry the only one dedicated to containing death. A rapidly growing cohort of lifestyle experts pretend that an eager audience in all the ways waits urgently to remove impurities from the home by purging and cleansing the taint of decay wherever death appears. Some minds believe that if you spend enough money, if you try hard enough, you will live forever. This obsession with imaginally living only echoes Levitical purity codes that we “must not go near any dead body or make himself unclean, even for his father or mother” Leviticus 21:11 but has no power to save.

It was Christ’s willingness to undergo death. Christ alone of all humanity had the right to avoid death, but he accepted it as the only procedure that grafts us into his perpetual life. All of us were dead, until, like Lazarus, he called us and we rose up.

It is easy to see why we should pray for the souls of the dead. It is less obvious why we should bathe their bodies tenderly and sing over them, why we should sit up with them in the night, why we should inter them with ceremony and visit their graves bearing flowers that they cannot smell.  The truth is that all human civilizations have their own careful prescriptions regarding the dead; how to honor or pacify them, how to be keep apart from their physical corruption. But for us Christians, we extend charity beyond the grave as an imitation of Christ’s mercy, which reached out to us even when we were spiritually dead.

Burying the dead is one of the seven corporal works of mercy, but it is also a sign of hope in Christ’s promise. The bodies of the dead are not discarded vessels, but integral parts of a human being that will be reunited on the last day. The separation is temporary, and they are still worthy of our respect and our love. It may be tempting, during the month of November, to yield prematurely to the flash and calmer charms of Christmas, to the jingle bells and stars in the east and merry gentlemen. But let the dead have November and other moments in our lives. Let them have this somber, chilly month, with its gray rainy skies. Say a prayer for all the departed during this month, and if you can, visit the resting places of your beloved dead.

We will be reunited with them in the world to come but, until then, it is good to grieve their separation. It is good to hold those who have gone before us as both objects of mercy and reverence. To mourn as a Christian is to hold both the fullness of loss and the promise of restoration at once. This promise will be fulfilled because Jesus says “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” Matthew 5:4. May the dead rest in eternal peace.

Fr. Paulino Mondo

Read 4754 times Last modified on Thursday, 21 November 2019 14:40

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