A Work of Mercy

Burying the dead is one of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy. It goes back to Jewish tradition (see the opening of the Book of Tobit) and is generally regarded as being a civilized thing to do. Today, in London, there will be several funerals, but for many the spotlight will be on just one, that of Lady Thatcher. Already there has been heated disagreement and our security forces have been prepared for outbreaks of violence. This is not the place to go over the arguments for and against the funeral plans or their cost, but I would like to suggest a reason why violence at the funeral would be . . . inappropriate.

When we bury the dead we are doing more than disposing of ‘mortal remains’. We are marking the end of someone’s life on earth and their entry, as we hope, into eternal life, commending their soul to God and praying for mercy. As a Catholic, I naturally think that most of us pass from death into a state of purification known as purgatory, which we who are alive have a duty to aid with our prayers. So, our prayers for the dead person do not end with their death. Our connectedness remains, so much so that I would argue that each of us has a role to play in the death and funeral rites of every person on earth. In the monastery we are frequently reminded of this. Not only do we have a long Office of the Dead which we pray on certain days of the year, we remember the dead at the conclusion of every Hour of the Divine Office and at the end of every meal.

Today there will be people all over Britain grieving for the death of someone they love. There will also be funerals of people who have no one to mourn them but the clergyman or woman who takes the service and represents the rest of society. Whatever our views on what is happening in central London today, perhaps that thought could give us pause. In death we become as everyone else who has died, but we are still bound together with the living and the living have a duty to the dead. Let us ask the mercy of God for all who have died, knowing that in doing so we ask mercy for ourselves and all whom we have ever loved.

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9 thoughts on “A Work of Mercy”

  1. Funerals are also a sign of hope for the living. That their relationship with the deceased will as Christians believe, be renewed in the promised new life with Christ.

    I’ve attended several humanist funerals, where platitudes were given about the deceased being the shining star skipping across the sky, seriously? Words of empty comfort which while honoring the life of the deceased only acknowledge that life is about here on earth, and no hope for anything else.

    I accept that there are millions without Christian or any faith belief, but the disservice that humanist funeral leaders to to families is profoundly disturbing to me. I ignores the need for some hope and peace and just gives them the sort of closure that is to my mind, incomplete and empty.

  2. I’d agree with you, Ernie, about the blankness of humanist funerals, but then, I can’t divorce myself from my Christian beliefs. There is a much bigger question I haven’t addressed here, although I’ve touched on it in other posts: our society’s inability to deal with death on any but sentimental terms. I suppose that’s another area where we have to be countercultural.

    • I think that the one that hurt the most was that of my Uncle. Who was a Catholic, although he hadn’t openly practiced his faith – when we spoke about it he said that he had seen and done so many bad things in WW2 that he didn’t think that God would have mercy on him?

      His children arranged a humanist funeral, where the person leading said patronised us by saying, that we’ll have a quiet moment or those believers to pray.

      As his papers were being sorted out, I was given a Catholic Prayer Book which he had used throughout his time as a POW in Italy and Germany from 1942 to 194 5. The prayer book contained daily bible readings for each day of the year along with the Mass and Catholic doctrine and the catechism. He had heavily annotated and underlined prayers and readings that meant something to him. And while some were from his wartime period, others were much more recent. He had obviously retained a belief and faith, just not practiced it. He was one of those faithful Christians, who prayed quietly and secretly, not boastfully or in public ways.

      I treasure this book as evidence that we will meet again, as you describe, perhaps after his period of purification after death.

      • UK Viewer, I find this a bittersweet story, and I cringe at the thought of your Uncle living with faith but separated from the Church where he might have found comfort in the Sacraments. What pain he must have lived with, known only to God. I will remember him in my prayers.

  3. For a time I belonged to the “Resurrection Choir” (or “Death Squad” as I referred to it) at our church. The purpose of which was to prepare food, bring it to the church and set up for a reception luncheon we would serve and clean up after the funeral to the attendees, and of course to sing in the choir at the Funeral Mass. Over the course of several years I participated in quite a number of funerals, each different in its own way, gaining a better sense of our connectedness to the grieving and the dead, the communion of saints. It was both a duty and a privilege to participate in this manner.

  4. Digital nun, I found your comments on today’s megafuneral interesting and in my distaste for the spectacle I also appreciate your thoughts about those who are dying alone and unrecognised. However, I do feel the need to address the subsequent comments about humanist funerals. To UK Viewer in particular:

    I can’t help seeing the gulf between (you) believers and (us) non-believers in your comments about humanist funerals. I can accept (though maybe not understand) that you personally find humanist funerals empty (although this is a view I clearly do not share). I cannot accept that you find them a disservice to the grieving families, because in this you are imposing your world view onto those who have a profoundly different outlook.

    My grandparents and parents all had non-religious funerals which I found moving and comforting, and in no sense lacking in a sense of peace and meaningful closure. On the contrary, it would have been meaningless, fake and profoundly disturbing to have held any other sort of funeral for people whose lives did not encompass belief in a deity.

    You said that humanist funerals gave “words of empty comfort which while honoring the life of the deceased only acknowledge that life is about here on earth, and no hope for anything else”. Please try to understand that for many of us life IS about here on earth; we have no (to us) illusions about a ‘next life’ so we really do need to make the best of this one.

    In summary – what is right for one is not right for another. I would never dream of saying that a religious funeral was anything other than meaningful, important and appropriate to believers. Please allow the same respect and understanding for humanist funerals for non-believers.

    • Ruth, I’m sorry you took exception to the comments made by UKViewer and myself about humanist funerals. I must let him speak for himself, although I would just say that I know him to be too good a man ever to give intentional hurt; and I apologize unreservedly for any hurt or offence I myself have given. However, as this is an explicitly Christian blog to which people of all faiths and none are welcome, I hope you’ll agree that it is legitimate to express different points of view. In the past I have let comments stand which have given great offence to some readers on the grounds that they are hostile to Christianity and to Catholicism in particular but which I thought were a legitimate expression of how an atheist or a secularist viewed a particular topic. On the same grounds, isn’t it also acceptable to say how a humanist funeral may strike a Christian believer, provided it is done with courtesy and consideration?

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