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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Respect

Respect. Our English word derives from the Latin respicio, meaning to look back, to look again. That has always suggested to me that an essential part of respect is giving time, pausing, weighing, deliberating a little. First thoughts are not always wise ones, nor are they always just. Yesterday we saw how quickly Twitter was awash with comments on the death of Margaret Thatcher. They ranged from instant canonisation to condemnation to the pit of hell. Personally, I found the gibes harder to take than the adulation, mainly because I regard death as important and am very conscious of the grief many must feel. In those first few hours after death we need to register what has happened and allow time for prayer and reflection. There is a kind of decency about allowing a little space before jumping in with our own summing up of another’s life and work.

I shall not be writing any assessment of Lady Thatcher. Others are much better qualified than I for such a task, but I do hope I shall give her respect. It does not mean that one waters down the truth or avoids unpleasantness, but it does mean that one tries to act with compassion. It is part of being civilized. Indeed, I dare to say it is part of being human.

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