Holy Spirit Province Saint-Esprit
Franciscans of CanadaFranciscains du Canada

Ordo Fratrum Minorum

Death and Mourning

Death and Mourning

When I die, I want to be buried in a simple wooden box. Not the kind of casket that looks like a piece of living room furniture, but just a box that signals quite clearly that it is supposed to do nothing more but hold what is left of my body, now that death has deprived it of its life-giving soul. Just a box that keeps its contents until it is reunited with the dust from which it was made. Then I want to be buried to join the only community of friars that has never once called Father Provincial to complain about how hard it is for them to be together: our Franciscan cemetery in Cochrane, Alberta. And before they get ready to do so, those friars who live to tell the tale should speak one more time of all that they had to endure while living with me. Such is my plan. I think it is a good one.

Giotto, Death of St. Francis

Why do I mention this? I had a funeral last week. It was a good funeral, the kind when a community gathers, close family and friends together with work colleagues and distant acquaintances who felt that they ought to be there, to mourn the loss of one their own, and to mark the end of a life with a proper service. Very few of the mourners were Catholic. I can always tell, long before the communion rite, just by the way they engage the liturgy. Nevertheless, I got the sense that they were all comforted by the ritual and the prayers that were spoken. They acknowledged their grief in the presence of death, but they also acknowledged the joy in the living of life, and somehow, the tension of this contradiction was lifted up in a higher understanding of both.

Why Make a Fuss?

Of course, as Bertolt Brecht reminded us, only those who have a sense of humor can understand Hegel and dialectical philosophy. Or life, but what is the difference, in the moment of death? When this particular service was over, the funeral director told me that for a great many, probably the majority of people, there is no such service whatsoever. “Mom never wanted to make a fuss” is what they say when asked what kind of service there might be after she had died. “Mom made quite a fuss about you,” is what she thinks, if she happens to know the family, but she could not possibly say this under such circumstances. So, another death goes unmarked and unacknowledged by public ceremony. Great is the loss.

I know that sometimes, people will gather, very privately, to have a memorial service of some kind in the privacy of their family. Indeed, I once participated in one such service, when exceptionally tragic circumstances had deprived the family of the opportunity to have a proper funeral. It was a beautiful experience, and I was glad to be part of it. But, it was an exception, proper to exceptional circumstances. Very often, there is absolutely nothing that is done to acknowledge the reality that life finds its completion, rather than its abolition, in death. A person’s life is a reality that is public, that is shared, and a private ceremony denies this public and communal nature of life. The failure to mourn is a failure to see how this particular life added to the life of the community, and how death brought this to our awareness. For those who can see this contribution, great is this loss.

Sister Bodily Death

Caravaggio, The Entombment of Christ

Death deprives the body of its life-giving soul, but it does not deny the reality of this life and its openness to the eternal presence of God. When confronted with the immediacy of his own death, Francis of Assisi composed his famous Canticle of Creation. He praises Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace none of the living can escape. But, we try so very hard to pretend that she is not part of our lives, that she is not necessary to complete our lives, according to the will of God, rather than ours. We might think about gathering for a “celebration of life,” rather than a funeral, as if it had not been death that has given us the occasion. Only those who mourn death have understood life and how life challenges us to live in faith in the certain knowledge of death. So, let us mourn, and let us do so in public. Have a funeral, and make it big and public, and raucous and tearful and appreciative of life and mournful of death, as the one who has died is gone and now stands before God. This service must be done, for our sake, as it is through our knowledge of death that we know life, and the origin of all life with whom and in whom we all hope to be reunited again: God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.