All I know is you don’t hear the phrase “died” much anymore. Most people favour “passed on” or “passed away”. We have seen a cultural shift away from sombre funerals where words like DEAD and DEATH are spoken, to celebrations of life. The dead are decreasingly interred in the ground. Instead they are cremated, and placed in an urn until people figure out how to dispose of them. How the ashes are scattered is supposed to give poetic significance to the person’s life.
But the eternal aspect is gone, along with most reference to religion. At one gathering I attended to mark the passing of a lady from my work, they handed out cards with her picture, inscribed with the words from Star Wars - “May the Force be with you”. They were grasping for something that might smack of the eternal and Star Wars would have to do. To my mind, there is a proper way to do these things that acknowledges what has happened and what might come after.
At one funeral I attended, the priest repeated the curse of Adam from Genesis chapter three. “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” That was God’s declaration on the fate of man after sin brought death into the world. But that’s not all. From the same chapter God also addressed Eve. He said of the Serpent: “He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” God was referring to the future birth of Mary, through whom Jesus, the cure for sin would arrive. This small verse is called the Protoevangelium. It’s the first appearance of the Gospel - the Good News, in the Bible.
The priest then consecrated the coffin. He formed a small quantity of salt (symbol of cleansing) on top of the casket in the shape of a cross. There it is. Hope. The woman had passed on, but she was with God. As Saint Paul points out, “Behold, I shew you a mystery. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye... the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15: 51-52). Hence the saying that he or she is now in a “better place”.
I can’t get away from this because ten years ago, I buried my own father in October, then came back from lowering a casket into the ground, to seeing mock coffins on display at Halloween for fun. As a society we like to make light of mortality and whistle past the graveyard, but the funeral of course was very real to me. It was unavoidable. Someone had died, and it had been upon me to find proper words to eulogize my father and the meaning of his life.
Fleming Rutledge has noted that in the deep south, it was customary to have real funerals, whereby the “little black dress” of her generation was not a mini for going out on the town, but for the funerals you expected to attend in your lifetime. People you knew, would die. The black dress was accompanied by a veil, and a formal black hat to mark the occasion of mourning.
Yes, we mourn, but Christians see death differently. In our parish If your loved one is deceased, you write their name down in the what is referred to as the parish “book of life”. It mirrors the Lamb’s Book of Life mentioned in Revelation. John 5:24 tells us, “He that believeth on him that sent me… is passed from death unto life.” Passed from death into life. It sounds a little better than passed away, doesn’t it? Yes, it’s a mystery, but a happy one.
Saint Paul said. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain”. How could he see things that way? Maybe it is time as Christians, to shift from the view of a cemetery as horrifying, to thinking of it as a waiting room. In Jerusalem, I thought it poetic and appropriate, that the cemetery on the hill outside the walls faces the Golden Gate - the gate that for now is closed up, through which Christ will make his final entry into Jerusalem upon his return, and the final resurrection of the dead.
A friend’s mother recently died. She had a rosary that was purchased on her honeymoon, from the birthplace in Italy of Saint Padre Pia. As a tourist item, the rosary was originally imbued with the scent of roses, associated with Padre Pia’s miracles. Many years had passed and it had long lost its scent. My friend’s mother did not fear death despite the unpleasant decline of her disease. She prayed daily, using this same rosary that had accompanied her life journey of faith. She passed from life into death peacefully. On the day she died, the entire room was filled with the mysterious but beautiful scent of roses, a sign from another dimension. Her family were greatly comforted because they knew she had actually passed from death into life.
Two angels told Mary at Jesus’ tomb, “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.”
Behold I shew you a mystery….