Monday, 3 August 2015

"Funerals I'd decided, are not for the dead, but for the living."

 The above is a quote from a film called 'The Fault in our Stars' which I would like to use as a spring board for exploring how people approach funerals; the pessimistic view which states "nothing but oblivion awaits us after death"; what the liberating Catholic beliefs are concerning funerals, death, and the life hereafter, and the responsibility and power that such beliefs place on the believer.

 There's a quote from a popular film released last year called 'The Fault in our Stars'. No doubt many of you would have seen this film, and would have enjoyed it. I personally found it disagreeable in many instances but overall I could appreciate the story, the serious subject matter explored, and I was overall moved in watching it. In'd probably have to be pretty heartless to watch this film without some signs of evoked emotion. Now even though as I said, I disagree with some of the messages conveyed by this film, I was able to draw out some lessons of truth as a Catholic, and I was also grateful that at least this was a film that would make people think about serious questions - certainly a change from most Hollywood blockbusters.

The quote I would like to mention comes from Hazel the protagonist, who following the scene of Augustus' funeral narrates the following: "Funerals I'd decided, are not for the dead, but for the living." This kind of statement could be described as nihilistic, pessimistic, realistic even, depending on one's beliefs. I can certainly see how this would be an apt observation of someone who doesn't share my own Catholic beliefs; because after all, if there is naught but oblivion after death, if we merely live this life and cease to exist once we die then truly a funeral can only be for the living. For how can a funeral be for the dead when the dead are...dead? Contrarily, one might hold fast to this statement even if one did believe in an afterlife of some description, that there was something after death. For is not a funeral a means of closure, a means of granting consolation to the living family members, friends and dear one's of the deceased? And even if someone does exist in some form of afterlife, then how can a funeral really be of benefit to them anyway? Thus holding these various rational points of view the statement still stands: "Funerals I'd decided, are not for the dead, but for the living."

Following the above line of thought, it would seem contrary to reason to state a funeral was for the dead. Yet in our contemporary western culture that is precisely what funerals are carried out for -for the dead. The very fact that people say "we want to pay him our respects" is a sign of this. Sure, being there for the family might be a motive, but most people's main motive for attending a funeral is generally to honour the deceased. The very fact that people prepare their own funerals is also a testament to this, for this is a clear sign that the funeral is for them and thus those carrying out the funeral take care, if a will is left, to act according to the deceased's intentions.

Now the statement made by Hazel in the film is not denying this obvious reality, but it is simply taking the atheistic/agnostic view 'that after death is oblivion' to its logical conclusion, a conclusion most atheists/agnostics do not want to arrive at because of its nihilistic starkness, bleakness and hopelessness. Such a conclusion is this: if by someone being 'dead' we mean someone who doesn't exist, then although a funeral is carried out seemingly 'for the dead', in reality -according to this perspective- it is being carried out 'for the living', for those that actually exist, for those that can still feel, think and breathe; because the deceased is dead, non-existent, shattered into oblivion, a figment belonging only to our consciousness, and at the best -a figment of 'our shared consciousness'. Holding fast to such a perspective one is thus compelled to agree with Hazel: "Funerals... are not for the dead, but for the living."

Even a Catholic perspective can see the truth in this statement, for indeed a funeral has as one of its purposes the benefit it gives to the living -to aid in the grieving process, to give a sense of closure, to provide a means for people to 'pay their respects' -something which we all feel the need to do as human persons, as relational people, especially when we know the deceased. Yet the Catholic perspective would all in all call the above statement a false statement. Why? Because the Catholic belief would assert quite the contrary; and if I were to rewrite a statement concerning the Catholic perspective it would be this: "Funerals are primarily for the dead, and secondarily for the living." We've explored this secondary purpose of the funeral -'for the living'- but what about 'for the dead’?

The-Village-Funeral, Frank-Holl, 1872.

The average westerner, who doesn't want to run the full mile of the stance that they hold -that oblivion is all that awaits us around the corner, is happy to not overthink. It is thus that many such persons will attend, will arrange, will give a eulogy at a funeral, maybe somewhat 'for the living' but primarily 'for the dead'. Yet the question must be asked: if such persons seek that the funeral be for the deceased, yet believe intellectually that the deceased are non-existent and have been cast into oblivion, then who or what do they think they are doing the funeral for? For a person? But that person doesn't exist according to such a stance, so it can't be for a person; because even if one intended x to be for ‘person y’, if ‘person y’ didn't exist then ‘intention x’ would be left on its own to be a meaningless feel good intention. Thus this miserable agnostic/atheistic stance is compelled to state, if one seeks a funeral to be 'for the dead', that it is for the memory of the person, or for the dead body of the person, or for the idea of that person, or the legacy, but not for the actual person them self. No, this is an impossibility according to the 'oblivion after death' stance.

Now what does the Catholic faith believe when it comes to 'doing' funerals 'for the dead'? Well, unlike the stance which holds the human person does not have a soul and that oblivion awaits us after death, the Catholic belief holds that the human person has an immortal soul which continues to live and exist after the mortal death of the body; and that this soul according to its final state as it leaves the body, is judged by God and goes to the place it has chosen - heaven or hell. With purgatory the place for those judged worthy of heaven, yet not ready to enter heaven until a period of spiritual purification takes place. The Catholic faith teaches that there is hope that everyone can be saved, and this hope is something which Catholics are encouraged to have when they attend a funeral. For a Catholic therefore, a funeral is not only a mere gathering to console the living, but it is -it should be- a sacred time to gather and pray for the person who has died; because this person -whose body may be dead, but whose soul is alive in the realm beyond- can profit and benefit from our prayers and works of love done for them and on their behalf. 

Soul Carried to Heaven, William Adolphe Bouguereau.
Therefore the eulogy, the ceremonies, the wake, the burial, these are all somewhat important, and even the burying of the dead is a required corporal act of mercy according to the Catholic faith, but none of these compare to the importance that the Holy Mass, the Requiem Mass, and the prayers of those gathered at the funeral have 'for the dead' who is in fact 'living' in the realm of beyond.

For if the deceased is in purgatory, the Mass most of all and the prayers said for them, can shorten their time in purgatory and hasten their entrance into heaven. Is this unjust we might say? Is God not a cruel tyrant for not allowing people immediate access to heaven? Well indeed the Catholic faith holds that all those who repent of their sins and are really sorry before and at the moment of their death, God judges worthy of heaven because of what Christ Jesus did for them by his death on the Cross. Yet let us say a son steals a wallet from his father; the son apologises, and the father forgives the son. Is the son forgiven? Yes. But still reparation must be made, for the son must give back the wallet and any money stolen in order to clear the debt. And purgatory is such a place, it is the place where those forgiven of sins go after death who must still pay back the damage their sins have caused. Thus Jesus says: "Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny" (Mt 5:26). Yet is such a punishment unjust? No, not at all. For what do parents make their children, who have been playing outside in the mud and rain, do before they attend a special function such as a wedding reception? They make their children wash themselves clean, and put on fresh clothes. Would we call the parents unjust for making their children bathe and change clothes? No, in fact we would call them unjust if they brought their children dirty and covered in muddy rags to a wedding reception – it would mar the occasion, besides, the doormen wouldn’t permit the entry of such dirty children. So it is with purgatory, it is a place where God makes sure we are clean and fresh before entering heaven. Thus although it is said, purgatory is a painful place, equal to the pains of hell, it is also called –unlike hell – a place where those are filled with joy, because despite the anguish of their ‘washing’ it brings them nearer to the bliss of paradise.

Yet still, purgatory is a painful place. And love compels the Catholic to pray for the deceased in order to ‘hurry up’ their time in purgatory. For what the ‘dead’ failed to do while they lived, in prayer and good works, the living can offer up on their behalf to God, and by this means the ‘living’ can pay the pennies that the ‘dead’ owe. Funerals are an external occasion, a marvelous opportunity to do this. 

However I am sure that the ‘dead’ if they are in purgatory, would surely behold their own funerals and wail with sorrow. For how many at a funeral actually pray for the deceased? Yet in reality this is all that the deceased cares about, maybe not before they died, but certainly afterwards. And perhaps one is thinking, what if the deceased was in hell? The Catholic belief attests that prayers cannot benefit the damned, for they have chosen their eternal fate through obstinately refusing to repent; however, we can never be sure that anyone has reached this fate, and so Catholics are encouraged to pray for all the departed, and if one happens to be damned then such prayers will not go to waste for such a soul, but God will apply them to another needy soul –thus no toil is in vain by those who pray for the dead.

But what if someone has already reached heaven, or if they reach heaven and we want to know if we can stop praying for them now? Here the Catholic belief confirms that even once a soul has reached heaven we are encouraged to pray for them, because one, we might never know for sure when a soul has reached heaven, and two, even when a soul is in heaven they can benefit from our prayers. For Catholic belief holds that essential glory is fixed once one dies, that is –to speak allegorically- the size of one’s vessel is fixed at death, and is larger or smaller according to how one loved whilst on earth –the more one loved the greater the size of one’s vessel, the less one the loved the smaller one’s vessel. The size of one’s vessel determines in heaven the capacity to which one will be able to enjoy paradise, contemplate God and the extent to which one will be able to commune with Him. [1] Some souls will thus be like thimbles, some like buckets, some like valleys, yet all will be filled to the brim with the life of God and so all will be perfectly happy.

However, Catholic belief also holds that there is a thing called ‘accidental glory’ which can increase even after one dies from the prayers and works of the living. Thus whilst the Catholic does not believe we can alter the essential glory of a soul, that we cannot expand the vessel of any given soul, we do believe that we (the Spirit in us) can increase the accidental glory of ‘the dead’ –those in purgatory and heaven. Thus if a Catholic were to say a little prayer for someone who was in heaven, we would believe that such a prayer by God’s power would –allegorically speaking- turn the liquid inside that soul’s vessel from water to wine, or from molten bronze to molten silver. Or else we might say although the cake is baked we can still put some icing and sugar on top.

Is this not a beautiful teaching? It is pretty much saying that the living can help the deceased in incredible ways. Do we pray ‘for the dead’? Do we keep in our prayers at Mass the souls of those who have gone before us? Is there anyone among us who feels regret for not loving a family member, friend or spouse as much as we would have liked to whilst they lived on earth? That’s okay, because we can still help them by our prayers, alms giving and sacrifices. Catholics believe we can offer up our sufferings, even stubbing one’s toe, to God on behalf of the Holy Souls in purgatory. Yet anything can be offered up in thanksgiving to God, even the experience of enjoying a sunset, or sipping on a refreshing drink, these very little things Catholic belief attests we can offer up to God in prayer as a means of ‘paying the pennies of the dead’ and of ‘putting sugar on top’ of our deceased loved ones if they are already in heaven. It’s not complicated to do this, we could merely say in faith: “I offer this up to you O God for the Holy Souls” or we could mention a specific name of a soul, or we would merely think it, so long as we bear this intention behind the actions, prayers and sacrifices we make. It would be nigh impossible for us to bear this intention in our minds 24/7, but we could simply pray a small prayer like the following to ‘cover our bases’ as well as specifically ‘offering things up’ during the day when we do remember: “Lord I offer to you all my actions, words, thoughts and deeds, past, present and future, for the relief of the holy souls in purgatory, especially for name.”

Now in order to conclude this article, we must of course forgo mentioning many things because there is not the time nor space to do so. Yet a final point worth mentioning is this: according to the Catholic stance ‘the dead’ are not really dead at all, for they are well and truly alive. After all, as Christ Jesus Himself said: “Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him.” (Lk 20:38). In this case, although on a surface level the Catholic is really forced to disagree with Hazel’s statement as it was originally intended, if one interprets it with the view that to the Catholic the dead are living; then the Catholic too –yet with resurrected terminology- will agree with Hazel’s statement: "Funerals I'd decided, are not for the dead, but for the living."

[1] Yet against the idea that heaven will be boring without spending too long to explain, imagine the happiest moment in your life, and imagine that moment repeating itself again and again for infinity but in a new and unexpected and amazing way each and every time, so that you were going from ecstasy to ecstasy. Now that is an exceedingly dim idea of what heaven will be like -it will thus certainly be anything but 'boring'.

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