Death, Funerals — and Life

We celebrated my father-in-law’s funeral a week after his death. I’d planned on writing about that, and probably will. But not today. I ended up talking about funerals in general, Psalms and science — it’s about as linear as most of my posts:


Celebrated?!

Saying that we “celebrated” may sound inappropriate at best, even disrespectful. It’s not.

I’m a Catholic who speaks English and lives in America, so the verb I use to describe what we did is “celebrate.”

It makes sense, considering how we view life, death and sacraments.

Sacraments, in the Catholic sense, are something we do because our Lord said they’re important. Really important:

SACRAMENT “Efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church….”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, p. 898)

A funeral is the sacrament where we look back at our Lord’s last Passover, and ahead to “…the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” (Catechism, 1680)

It’s a ‘journey’s end’ event, a sort of going away party; a chance for family and friends to help each other through the loss. (Catechism, 16811690)

Some parts of Catholic funerals are always the same. We’ll read from the Bible, receive the Eucharist, and commend the deceased to God. (Catechism, 16841690)

Some details reflect regional cultures and traditions. (Catechism, 1685)

That’s because the Catholic Church really is καθολικός, katholikos, universal. What’s important in our faith hasn’t changed, and won’t. How we live our faith, the details, changes as our cultures change. (February 4, 2018; October 15, 2017)

11th century Bremen isn’t 21st century Minnesota, or 31st century who-knows-where. And that’s okay.

“Funeral Orgies”

A lack of over-the-top eulogies is among the more obvious differences between Catholic funerals and America’s old-school funeral obsequies. Or “orgies,” as a con man said in Huckleberry Finn.

“‘…Orgies is better, because it means the thing you’re after more exact….'”
(“Huckleberry Finn,” Chapter 25, Mark Twain)

Most Catholic funerals, that is.

I was at a funeral Mass where some of the bereaved folks came up front for a few words. One of them launched into a lengthy and impassioned panegyric. She finally got winded and sat down.

That was the first and last time I saw folks come up front to say their piece at a Catholic funeral. Not that I’ve been to many, Catholic or otherwise.

I don’t doubt that the overly-enthusiastic eulogist was sincere, and quite possibly accurate. But impassioned and seemingly-interminable monologues like that are embarrassing, at least for me. Sharing good memories is one thing. Laying them on with a trowel is another.

Maybe that’s why my father-in-law said ‘don’t let them canonize me’ to the parish priest. The priest mentioned that remark at some point, I don’t remember when.

There’s a time and place for sharing memories of who our family member, friend, associate or neighbor was, and what that person did.

How we share has been changing since I started paying attention. Photo displays are, to my knowledge, only a few decades old. Some now include digital media.

Getting ready for these remembrances may be easier when we’re dealing with someone like my father-in-law.

But it’s never, I think, easy.

Folks in my household and extended family have been putting together photo montages and other memento collections: some of which have been displayed in his house. One of my brothers-in-law was showing folks around the house after the wake.

I don’t have a problem with that sort of thing.

Maybe because I’ve yet to experience one that’s like the “orgies” in old jokes. I don’t see a point in describing a philanthropist, font of wisdom and all-round good guy who’s pretty much the opposite of the irascible old coot being buried.

Enough, maybe too much, of what can go wrong with “funeral orgies.”

Death: It’s Inevitable

Folks can be uneasy about funerals and death at almost any age.

Or excessively fascinated.

No two people, likely enough, respond the same way. Which era we’re in, where we’ve been living, our experiences, personalities and beliefs affect each of us differently. (April 11, 2018; November 11, 2016)

I’m well past this life’s midpoint, so my anxieties and interests aren’t quite like a child’s or youth’s. But they’re probably not that much different, either. Not when I step back and look at the big picture.

I see death as something that happens. It’s inevitable, or nearly so. Exceptions, like Elijah’s spectacular departure in 2 Kings 2:814, are — exceptional. I’ve talked about miracles, peanut butter and comic strips before. (August 13, 2017)

I can’t reasonably expect heavenly limousine service, with or without “a fiery chariot and fiery horses.” Death? That’s something I can expect. It’s inevitable.

How I see death may take a little explaining, starting with how I see faith and reason, science and religion.

Psalms and Copernicus — and H. P. Lovecraft

If you’ve read my ‘science and religion’ posts, you know that I think this universe is filled with wonders, and that learning more about it is a good idea. Science and faith both seek truth, or should. (January 28, 2018; October 29, 2017)

Noticing and appreciating this universe isn’t new. We’ve known all along that we live in a good, beautiful and vast world — and been impressed.

“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day.”
(Genesis 1:31)

“You adorn the year with your bounty; your paths drip with fruitful rain.
“The meadows of the wilderness also drip; the hills are robed with joy.”
(Psalms 65:1213)

“How great are your works, LORD!
How profound your designs!”
(Psalms 92:6)

Some realized that what we see points toward God. Others were overly impressed by the show, and didn’t notice “the original source of beauty….” (Wisdom 13:3)

“Praise him, sun and moon;
“praise him, all shining stars.”
(Psalms 148:3)

“Instead either fire, or wind, or the swift air,
or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water,
or the luminaries of heaven, the governors of the world, they considered gods.
“Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought them gods, let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these; for the original source of beauty fashioned them.”
(Wisdom 13:23)

The sun and moon haven’t changed much since Psalms 148 was composed, or Aristotle said that we live at the center of the universe. Or the bottom, if you’re thinking about Aristotelian physics

What we know about the sun, moon and beyond has changed; particularly in the five centuries since Copernicus wrote “Dē revolutionibus….”

I’m fascinated by what we’re learning. But that’s not the only possible reaction to “such terrifying vistas of reality.”

“…The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age….”
(“The Call of Cthulhu,” H. P. Lovecraft (1929); via WikiQuote)

Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” isn’t on a par with Thomas Paine’s “Reason” or J. B. S. Haldane’s “Fact and Faith.” But I think it echoes how folks deal with our new horizons. Some folks, that is.

I might be scared of what we’re learning, if I imagined that my fate depended on Aristotle being right. Or that philosophers and scientists create or control reality: that Earth really was in the center of celestial spheres when Aristotle said it was, and stated orbiting our sun when Copernicus wrote about his theory.

I have no idea whether anyone really believes that. On the other hand, a few folks insist that Earth is flat, and that’s another topic.

I figure that no philosopher or scientist can change reality’s source code. Humans can understand the physical laws of this universe. Inventors can use that knowledge to develop new tools. It’s part of being human. So is having a thirst for truth. (Catechism, 27, 2293)

Science and faith both assume that absolute truth exists. But, as a science editor pointed out, they look at different aspects of truth:

“…It’s something too many of us forget, that reality has layers. Occasionally people ask me how I can be Catholic and a science journalist. The answer is simple: Truth does not contradict truth. Both science and religion are pursuit of truth. They’re after different aspects of truth, different layers of reality, but they’re still both fundamentally about truth.

“We assume that there’s a right and a wrong way to describe the universe. … Quantum mechanics is right or it’s wrong. It isn’t right for some folks and wrong for others. Truth is truth whether we know the truth or not: Earth revolved around the sun even when people thought it was the other way around.

“Science teaches us, in other words, that absolute truth exists. It doesn’t tell us why, or Who that Truth is. Science is a marvelous tool, but in our marveling we must not forget that science is our interaction with and understanding of physical reality. It’s immensely powerful, but it’s not metaphysical….”
(“Science and faith offer different but kindred paths to grasping reality,” Camille M. Carlisle, Sky and Telescope (June 2017))

We didn’t have all the answers when Copernican theory upset Aristotelian applecarts. We still don’t. But we’ve learned a bit more.

We learned that planetary orbits aren’t perfectly circular. We discovered that Copernicus was right, to an extent. This universe isn’t centered on Earth, or our sun. Most of it isn’t even in our galaxy.

I don’t mind living in a universe that’s neither geocentric nor heliocentric.

I figure God is still large and in charge. This is also not a new idea.

“Terrible and awesome are you,
stronger than the ancient mountains.”
(Psalms 76:5)

“Yours are the heavens, yours the earth;
you founded the world and everything in it.”
(Psalms 89:12)

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance,
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.”
(Wisdom 11:22)

“His gaze spans all the ages:
is there any limit to his saving action?
To him, nothing is small or insignificant,
and nothing too wonderful or hard for him.”
(Sirach 39:20)

I figure Pope Leo XIII and St. Augustine of Hippo are right.

God creates everything. We don’t have all the answers. Using our brains is okay. So is studying God’s creation. Scientific discoveries are invitations “to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator….” (Catechism, 283)

“…God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures – and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. … Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893) [emphasis mine])

“Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air…. They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look; we’re beautiful.’…
“…So in this way they arrived at a knowledge of the god who made things, through the things which he made.”
(Sermon 241, St. Augustine of Hippo (ca. 411))

Accepting Truth

I’m a Catholic, so I don’t have much wiggle room when faith and science are in play.

I see faith as accepting truth and God. All truth, including what we’re learning about God’s creation. (Catechism, 142159, 282289, 341)

Deciding that I’ll believe the bits I like, and reject truths I don’t isn’t an option. Not if I’m going to be a Catholic.

Even if I felt like it, rejecting what we’re learning wouldn’t make sense. As I’ve said before, faith isn’t reason. But it’s reasonable, and certainly not against an honest search for truth. (Catechism, 3135, 159; “Fides et Ratio;” “Gaudium et Spes,” 36)

Happily, I like living in a universe that’s vast and ancient on a cosmic scale.

I also like having a body.

The notion that there’s something basically bad about bodies, or anything physical, goes back at least two dozen centuries. Variations with a Christian spin keep cropping up, sort of like bindweed. (April 21, 2018; April 15, 2018)

Cherophobiac cognoscenti — there’s a tongue-twister for you — aside, matter isn’t basically bad. Having a body isn’t a problem. Humans are body and soul, and this is “very good.” (Genesis 1:27, 31; Catechism, 285, 337349, 355373, 285, 1703)

I’m human, so my soul is spiritual and immortal, created by God. (Catechism, 366)

Like every other human, I’m a creature made from the stuff of this world and God’s ‘breath.’ We’re made in the image of God, with a body and “equally endowed with rational souls.” (Catechism, 355379, 872, 1703, 1880, 1934, 19341937)

Being both spiritual and material isn’t good or bad. Not by itself. What matters is how I use my reason and will: what I decide to believe and do. (Catechism, 17041707, 1730, 18521869)

I could try believing that death doesn’t happen, that my body will keep living forever. Since I’m a Catholic, that’s almost what I expect, but not quite.

My body will die, and that’s where it gets interesting. After I die, I’ll be someone whose soul and body are separated. It’s a temporary condition. (Catechism, 991, 9971001)

Life and Expectations

I’m not sure which is more comforting, or unsettling — believing that I stop existing when I die, or that I’ll live forever.

Seeing this life as all that there is could let me think I can do whatever I like, with consequences limited to what happens before I die.

That could mean good times for me, with cleanup left as a chore for someone else.

An anthropomorphized “All Dogs Go to Heaven” theology could have the same effect, provided I didn’t think too much about justice and all that.

Predestination is another can of worms. One that I’ve talked about before. You’ll find “Predestination” in the inevitable link list after this post.

Living forever will be good news or bad news, depending partly on what I’ve done with my life. But I won’t be dragged, kicking and screaming, into Heaven if I don’t want to go.

It’s my choice, one I’ll make at the performance review we call the particular judgment. I’m not looking forward to it, since my record is far from spotless, but it’s unavoidable. (Catechism, 10211037, 10421050)

My soul and body will be rejoined in time for the Final Judgment. How resurrection gets done is something I don’t know. Not the nuts-and-bolts operational details. I can’t. God does, which works for me. (Catechism, 9971004, 1031, 10421050, 1059)

Judgment Day Silliness

I’m not sure why so many Christians, including the occasional Catholic Christian, believe that they’ve got inside information on the Final Judgement’s timetable.

Folks who buy ‘End Times are Nigh’ books aren’t all like Non Sequitur’s Lucky Eddie. Some are smart, some are well-read.

My guess, and it’s no more than a guess, is that many never got around to thinking hard about what they believe and why they believe it. Or don’t realize how often another ‘End Times’ prognostication flares, fizzles and fades.

It’s been several months since I ran into an in-progress “rapture” prediction, so we’re probably due for another one.

“Rapture,” by the way, is one of America’s contributions to world culture. Along with Mickey Mouse and Marlboro cigarettes, and that’s yet another topic. Topics.

I don’t take America’s perennial ‘End Times Bible Prophecies’ seriously, apart from the effect they have on folks. And as opportunities to talk about what I do, and don’t, expect.

I think the Final Judgment will happen. I don’t know when that will be. That’s fine by me.

I’ve read what our Lord said, recorded in Matthew 24:3644, 25:13; and Mark 13:3233.

Details of the Final Judgment’s timetable seem to be available on a ‘need to know’ basis. The Son of God didn’t need to know, so I sure don’t.

Looking Past “These Few Years”


(From Albert Robida, via the Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons. Used w/o permission.)
(Albert Robida’s 1902 print: “La Sortie de l’opéra en l’an 2000.”)

I very strongly suspect that most efforts at imagining what’s next are about as accurate as Albert Robida’s flying cars. That hasn’t kept folks from trying. Revelation 21 seems to be a favorite starting point, and that’s yet again another topic.

Whatever it’s like, I expect it’ll be better than I expect. Better than I can expect.

“Those who trust in him shall understand truth,
and the faithful shall abide with him in love:
“Because grace and mercy are with his holy ones,
and his care is with the elect.
“But the wicked shall receive a punishment to match their thoughts,
since they neglected righteousness and forsook the LORD.
“For those who despise wisdom and instruction are doomed.
Vain is their hope, fruitless their labors,
and worthless their works.”
(Wisdom 3:911)

“The number of their days seems great
if it reaches a hundred years.
“Like a drop of water from the sea and a grain of sand,
so are these few years among the days of eternity.
“That is why the Lord is patient with them
and pours out his mercy on them.”
(Sirach 18:911)

“But as it is written:
‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him,'”
(1 Corinthians 2:9)

More of how I see life, death and the big picture:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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3 Responses to Death, Funerals — and Life

  1. Sorry to hear about the best in the family. I’ve never been to a Catholic funeral. I’ve always heard about them. Sounds highly different than the average style of the funeral I’ve attended.

    Regarding the “End Times,” I’m always reminded of those books called Left Behind. Thank goodness I was never a believer in that theology. Jesus clearly stated in many parables that the wheat and weeds would grow together for the appointed time then they’ll be separated. Moreover, Jesus said “I’ll be with you till the end of the age” which indicates that he intends on coming back only once.

    Also, I haven’t seen it all since studying Catholicism and becoming Catholic, but the idea that we can know when Jesus will return is widespread in Protestant circles. The distortion of the major/minor prophets has led to faulty speculation and hysteria. The ones I see advocating for Jesus’ timeline are the exact people advocating for a rebuilding of the Jewish temple.

    Very strange

    • About my family’s situation, thank you. We’re coping – me, too; although it’s a work in progress.

      About End Times and all that – – – Very strange, indeed. Or maybe not so much. 😉 I’ve noticed that at least a few folks can be counted on to get – ah, alternatively-reasonable? – ideas. On pretty much any topic.

      About lead-up to the Final Judgment and all that – – – my way of looking at it is by using vaguely-parallel situations in today’s cultures.

      Using a particular model, I see my role as someone pretty close to the base of the organizational chart. I’ve got duties, and enough authority to get my jobs done.

      My duties include a little planning, mostly what I’ll call tactical decisions. What I do is all low-level stuff.

      Strategic decisions involving everyone and everything? That’s top-level. Part of Matthew and Mark say that our Lord, God’s Son, didn’t know the Final Judgment’s timetable.

      I figure the information is available on a ‘need to know’ basis. If a person in the Holy Trinity doesn’t need to know: I sure don’t. I’ve got as much as I can handle as it is.

      Following is a link to one of the few places I talk about last things. From my viewpoint, it’s not that complicated. It’s doing my job that’s hard. And that’s another topic. http://brendans-island.com/catholic-citizen/taking-god-seriously/#judgment

      • Correction: “Sorry to hear about the death in the family. ” Becoming Catholic has profoundly opened my eyes to the vast contrast in eschatology by my former Reformed tradition. As I read the Church docs on the Last Things, I’m extremely more hopeful and encouraged by things such as the Final Judgement. The furthest I’ve seen the timetable extended to was a full-blown algorithm on historical events that predict the exact date . Very fancy timeline though. I will definitely read the link provided!

Thanks for taking time to comment!