I have to share this beautiful post from my friend, Anne. A gifted writer to begin with, Anne has turned her sadness and grief over her mother's recent passing into a rich collection of reflections on her blog:
When my friend stood up to read the prayers of the faithful, she prayed for all those who had suffered the loss of a parent. I lowered my eyes, fighting back tears. Her eyes were red, glistening around the edges with fresh tears, and her voice was very soft, nearly breaking. I knew what she was feeling. And I knew she knew how I felt. We were sisters, in a way, in that moment. We prayed together, heart to heart.
And then the priest said something that took my breath away and set my heart beating quickly. As I stood there, watching my friend and her mother bow their heads, I heard: "Thank you all for coming and standing with us to remember the life of J. with his family. This is what Christians do for each other."
I am blessed to have both of my parents with me still, being new grandparents to Baby J and his little cousin, my sister's baby. I know not everyone, especially Anne, has that luxury. But even with my nuclear family intact, the passing of close relatives and parish friends has been a constant in my life since I was small.
Not until going to college, though, did I realize how little experience many of my peers had with death. Not that I wished the experience on any of them--no one wishes for their friends to have just a little more sadness in their lives.
But when I begin to count off the funerals I've attended, it adds up quickly. There's our beloved Grandpa Les. There's our substitute grandmas, great aunts Lolo and Rita. There's my paternal grandfather and grandmother. Then there are the many men and women from our parish: Rich, a FBI investigator, devout Catholic and family man who left behind six beautiful children and a loving wife. Penny, a long-time parish volunteer whom everyone knew and loved. Liz, the sweet and generous wife of our parish deacon. Bob, the retired Lieutenant Colonel who sang in the choir and deeply loved his wife, Moonbeam. John, a big teddy bear of a man who treated our autistic sister with such kindness. Mary Jo, my grade school classmate, taken so early by meningitis; and Bridgett, another grandmother figure in my life who took me to classical music concerts. These are a few; there are others.
Their funerals allowed their loved ones to pay tribute to their lives and pray: "May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace." I know some parishes have ministry groups whose sole purpose is to attend funerals, especially for the lesser-known (or much older) members of a parish. My Mom has come home from such Masses and said many times over, in all seriousness, "You know, there's just nothing like a good Catholic funeral." And she's right. Respect for the soul, respect for the body, respect for the Creator that made both--it's all there.
Death, in our culture, however, is often treated with not just disrespect, but downright horror. Look at the television shows and movies, built around a fascination with a grim afterlife: The Walking Dead on AMC and The Ghost Whisperer on CBS are two recent examples. No wonder there's such skepticism today about the possibility of heaven and hell--the deceased are obviously too busy trying to either launch zombie attacks or avenge their own deaths to be worried about such things as final damnation (or salvation, for that matter).
It's no badge of honor to have attended many funerals, and some would even call it unfortunate. But it is a life experience that greatly shapes a person. My mom often tells stories about growing up in small-town Nebraska; she lived next door to one of the two town mortuaries. The family running it lived in the upstairs portion of a beautifully restored Victorian and ran the business downstairs. As her own mother died suddenly when Mom was only 11, she learned, so very early, that death cannot stop us in our tracks. We grieve, we pray, and we never forget. But we keep going.
While still in my dating days, I had a litany of "first date questions" that I'd draw from if a young man happened to take me out to dinner. One of my favorites was, "Have you ever been to a funeral?" (We can all see now why I spent most Saturday nights with my girlfriends, eating brownies and watching Bridget Jones' Diary.) It always surprised me when my date would cock an eyebrow, quizzically furrow his brow and say, "Well, uh, no, not really--oh maybe one, but yeah, not more than that." I somehow knew that if this was the answer, he and I might have a hard time relating.
And so it was rather telling when my husband Sean and I went on our first date, after three years of friendship. Sean worked weekends at the Catholic funeral home in town as an "ambassador," somberly donning a suit and tie to assist with viewings, rosaries and, of course, funerals. In my nervous first-date mode, I began asking him over our smoked-salmon appetizer, "So, have you ever been to a funer..." I trailed off in laughter as I realized my mistake. Sean's response was right on beat: "As a matter of fact, I have... usually one, sometimes two a week." And then he smiled.
There's no dispute that death is painful--for ourselves and others. But as Catholics, we "look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." Attending funerals affirms that line of the creed in our hearts and minds.
We force ourselves to gather up our courage, pray for strength, and give thanks for every day God gives us. We thank him that we were well loved. We thank him for the gifts of living saints in our lives.
And we pray that at our own funeral, the priest will say, "Thank you all for coming and standing with us to remember the life of ___ with her family. This is what Christians do for each other."