November 10, 2005
In Krakow, Poland, Jews have been gathering to worship in the Remuh Synagogue since 1553. From all over the world, the devout come to pray not only in the synagogue but in its adjoining graveyard. There are buried famous rabbis, scholars and elders. On a recent trip with four other bishops and three Orthodox rabbis, I visited the cemetery. On one tombstone, a crown: a symbol of learning, of knowledge and wisdom. Here lies a rabbi. On another, outstretched hands in a gesture of blessing. Here is buried a Cohen, a descendant of Aaron the high priest. On a third tombstone, two birds: the image of the human soul winging its way to God.
We stopped for some time at the grave of Moses Isserles, also known as Remuh. He lived in the 16
th century. His epitaph recalls his greatness.
A great scholar, the light of the West…our teacher, Rabbi Moses, the Shepherd and the Tower of Strength of Israel… From Moses until Moses there will be no one among the people of Israel who would be equal to Moses. Candles flickered in the breeze. And not far away, a group of young men clad in black wearing equally black hats shuckled their prayers.
The moment was right. The place itself suggesting the question. Why were prayers being said? What was the belief of those visiting these graves? As the rabbis answered my questions, the thread that unites our Catholic faith to its Jewish roots became clear. Jewish Law requires that the
Kaddish be recited during the first eleven months following the death of a loved one and on each anniversary of the death. The prayer is a doxology or hymn of praise to God and a plea for the coming of the messianic age. Because the prayer is connected with the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead, it has become the traditional prayer of mourners. Pilgrims come to the tombs to pray for the dead. They also ask for their intercession. Those who have gone to God and those who remain remained connected by ritual and prayer. Life does not end at the grave. Nor memory. Nor love.
How close this understanding is to our Catholic practice about the dead! Already in catacombs of the first century, there are prayers on the tombs. Pious people often visited the tombs to pray for the dead, and even inscribed their prayer on the monument. Tertullian also testifies to the regularity of the practice of praying privately for the dead (
De Monogamia, x). St. Augustine gives witness to the custom praying for the dead publicly at Mass (
Sermo, clxxii, 2). And Eusebius provides us with a famous example of prayer for the dead. He tells us, that at the tomb of Constantine "a vast crowd of people together with the priests offered their prayers to God for the emperor's soul with tears and great lamentation" (
Vita Constantini, IV, lxxi).
Our prayers for the dead are a lively expression of our belief in the Communion of Saints. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and 'because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins' she offers her suffrages for them." Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective” (958).
An important moment of our praying for the dead is the funeral itself. However for the last 25 years, there has been change. Cremations have become more popular. Wakes have been reduced to one day, sometimes to one viewing. In some cases, there is no wake at all. In the past, with rare exceptions, the family and friends always came to Church for a funeral and then to the cemetery. Today some opt to have no funeral at all. Some children, without a deep attachment to the Church, no longer bring their parents who have been faithful churchgoers all their lives to Church for a funeral Mass. Some families choose to bury the body or the remains and then have, at a convenient time, a memorial service. Many even request simple prayers at the funeral home, no Mass, and then burial.
For some, the Church is no longer the sacred space where God is encountered in moments of spiritual density. The Church is no longer seen as the House of God where we already sit at the Lord’s Table and are readied for the banquet of heaven. In our society that is so ruggedly individualistic, fewer people attend funerals. Work and other obligations take precedence. In fact, the stronger the sense of individualism and self-reliance is, the less interest is there in celebrating a funeral in a Church. For such a celebration expresses community, interdependence and obligation to others.
A funeral Mass in Church still remains the Catholic way of burying the dead. With the readings of Sacred Scriptures, we view the moment of losing someone we love in the light of divine revelation. We see the one we love as loved by God and called to eternal life in Christ. In celebrating the Eucharist, we join ourselves with Christ on the Cross as His Precious Blood redeems us and our loved one from sin. For us, the funeral is certainly a moment to remember the life of the deceased, to speak of their goodness and the memories we will cherish. But it is much more. It is the sacred moment to center on Christ whose life, death and resurrection gifts us with eternal life and comforts us in our sorrow. Funerals are considered sacred moments to be celebrated with Mass for the dead.
Some changes in burying the dead may be taking place because families no longer live in the same neighborhood. Our society is mobile. Families are separated by great distances. Some decisions may even be dictated by finances. However, the departure from the traditional funeral or wake, funeral Mass in Church and burial may actually reflect deeper views about life itself, and faith or even some loss of faith. When faced with death, the strongest, clearest and most faith-filled celebration of the passing of those we love to life with God remains the Mass of the Lord’s Resurrection in Church.