At the very beginning of November, we will be celebrating two important feasts that are deeply rooted in Catholic faith and piety: All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2.
These are celebrations of the “communion of saints” that we mention every time we recite the Creed. This doctrine tells us that the Church consists not only of the living who are still “fighting the good fight” on earth, but also those who are triumphant in heaven (All Saints) and those in Purgatory (All Souls) who still need purification in order to enter heaven.
The souls in Purgatory are the special focus of the month of November. Purgatory means that even after a person dies (provided he or she has not died in unrepented mortal sin), the mercy of God – and the love and prayers of those on earth and in heaven – can embrace that person and help purify whatever might still need to be purified in order to see God “face to face.”
Except for those dead whose presence in heaven is confirmed by miracles and the Church’s canonization, we simply cannot know the state of a deceased person’s soul. God alone is capable of knowing the truth of each and every person. Since we cannot know even ourselves, much less others, as God knows us, it is an ancient instinct of Catholic piety, firmly rooted in Scripture and Tradition, that we commend to the mercy of God all those who have passed from this world (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030-1032).
Heaven is, no doubt, home to countless saints – including relatives and friends – whose names will never appear on the Church calendar. But we do the dead no eternal kindness by denying the possibility that on the other side of the grave they may still have to undergo purification from the effects of sin. When I die, I certainly want the benefit of Masses and prayers offered for me.
Today there are spiritual and cultural changes at work, pulling us away from Catholic doctrine and piety concerning the dead. The reality of Purgatory, the resurrection of the body and the importance of praying for the dead and offering Masses for them, are hardly mentioned. While “a moment of silence” to remember a recently deceased person is appropriate in secular and inter-religious settings, it is Catholic tradition at such a moment to offer the following prayer aloud by everyone: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
We are also witnessing a shift in funeral practices. Traditionally, Catholic funeral rites have consisted of three distinct moments. First there are calling hours, a wake at which people gather socially to visit, to reminisce and yes – even joke and laugh about the past. And second, there is the funeral Mass with its prayers and rites focused on the mysteries of faith in the light of eternity. Finally, there is the committal at the cemetery.
The first two are not mutually exclusive. The wake includes prayer, and the funeral Mass has to have a warm and personal touch, with an appropriate reference to the deceased person’s life. However, sometimes there is temptation to blur the difference between the wake and the Mass, to eliminate one or the other, or to speak of the Mass as only a memorial.
The wake is the primary place for remembering and celebrating the person’s life in this world. At the funeral Mass itself, the liturgy allows some brief word of thanks by a family member after communion, but not long eulogies that are more appropriate for a wake. If others need to speak in church, for example, at the funeral of a public figure, then, if circumstances permit, this might more appropriately be done before the funeral Mass begins. The committal service at the cemetery also provides an opportunity for other ceremonials; for example, the military honors shown to deceased veterans.
A funeral Mass is offered for the purpose of commending the deceased – body and soul – to the loving mercy of God, and in doing so we console the sorrowing with God’s Word and the Eucharist, we thank God for the life of the deceased and we affirm the bond between the living and dead in the communion of saints. The faith of the Church is distorted, and the dead are done a great disservice, when funeral liturgies are interpreted as only memorial services or even a form of canonization with little or no reference to the truths of our faith that I have mentioned.
Another concern is that sometimes cremation leads to the exclusion of the body of the deceased from the funeral Mass. For the Church, “the human body is in Christ a temple of the Holy Spirit and is destined for future glory at the resurrection of the dead” (cf. Order of Christian Funerals: Appendix 2, Cremation). In keeping with that dignity and hope, the body of the deceased should be present at the funeral Mass, with cremation afterward if that is what is desired. If this is not possible, then at least the cremated remains should be present for the funeral Mass.
Reverence for the body also calls for burial in consecrated ground, and this has given rise to our parish and diocesan cemeteries. Cremated remains too “should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires” (Ibid.).
This year, All Souls Day is on a Sunday, so we will all be celebrating it at the liturgy that day. I invite you to offer a special daily prayer for the faithful departed during November, and to visit the graves of your loved ones, especially if it’s been a while since you last did so. I would also encourage parents to teach their children about the “communion of saints” that unites us in Christ to our deceased family members so that we pray for them and they pray for us.
God bless you.