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Death and the Church’s Funeral Liturgy

Life: Issue Two

Fr. Blake Britton

When paleoanthropologists first explored the pre-historic caverns of Lascaux, they were stunned. What they found overturned the commonly accepted narrative of the so-called “Caveman.” “We are the civilized ones; they are the brutes.” Such was the account. And yet, where we expected to find uncouthness and laughable ignorance—the proverbial bone and club—we instead unveiled a culture so profoundly aware of itself and their place in creation that it made us moderns blush for shame and pine for simpler times.

Massive paintings depicting wildlife, hunting forays and religious practices don the stone walls, detailing a contemplative and thoughtful people. Among the most striking findings is a collection of burial sites in which, for more than 15,000 years, human remains have rested, carefully adorned with ornaments for their journey to the afterlife. This landmark discovery confirmed a previously debated theory regarding paleolithic man, namely, whether he buried the dead.

For paleoanthropologists, the burial of one’s dead is an important line of demarcation between species. In fact, scientists use burial of the dead and funeral ritual as one of the principal indicators of the genus homo. An acute consciousness of death by way of caring for the dead and religious ceremony are fundamental components of the human person’s uniqueness in the animal kingdom; a sure sign that indeed among all the creatures of the earth, there is “not one like unto him” (Gen. 2:20). Anthropologically speaking, therefore, the recognition of death accompanied by funeral ritual is a scientific point of reference marking the sophistication and inimitability of hominid sapiens.

If this is true, then we cannot help but question the state of humanity in contemporary “progressive” society. Unlike our predecessors, we avoid death at all costs, even if it means losing the joy of living. Our priority is to keep breathing, which, ironically, cheapens our every breath. This cultural thanatophobia is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the pursuit of immortality and an escape from finitude, we entrust ourselves to a legion of artificial contrivances; technological, surgical and chemical. In the worst case, these things cause us to die sooner and in much unhealthier physical, mental and spiritual condition. In all cases, they save the mortician the trouble of embalming us, because by the time we arrive to him, we’re mostly plastic and pumped full of preservatives anyways.

What it means “to live” has escaped us. We measure our quality of life in relation to dying as a final event. This leads to an existential angst, an all-penetrating restlessness in our day-to-day activities that tries to sap the most out of things because “tomorrow we die!” YOLO as the popular slang goes.

The purpose of a Mass for the Dead is not primarily to recognize what the deceased accomplished in their lifetime—regardless of how inspiring or touching that may be—but rather to uphold what was accomplished by Christ in them through the sacrament of baptism.

In a disquieting article, Evan Axelrod notes that distress over death and its resulting immersion into the tedium of materialism is a principal reason that zombies are so popular in contemporary media. “The story of the zombie is a metaphor for what is wrong with the human condition, particularly the monotony of our lives and our drive to consume . . . on some level it allows us to deal with the fear of death. In a sense, the idea of confronting, defeating, and surviving zombies represents surviving death itself.”[1] The zombie is an analogy for death which stands as an omnipresent existential threat that needs to be eliminated at all costs. Of course, this is seen on a purely somatic level with no notion of eternal life or spirituality. Thus, the modern empirical attitude towards death has led to an all-encompassing cultural phenomenon in which the whole of our society is ungirded with the eerie presupposition that “this will all be over soon.” So, enjoy it while you can. This is what makes Axelrod conclude his article with a chilling observation: “Zombies are us.”

In many ways, the drama of Dorian Gray is well-lived in modern man, who, in exchange for the illusion of eternal beauty and youth, abandons his soul. Every day becomes a sacrifice to Hedone. We drink deeply of countless pleasures, living only to “give rebellion its fascination and disobedience its charm.” All the while, we run from the self-portrait of our own mortality sitting hauntingly behind the lock-and-key of our subconscious. Finally, after years of superficiality, grown weary of worldly comforts, we dare to look back at the canvas of our lives and with Dorian quote the tragic lines of Hamlet’s Laertes, for we too have become “a face without a heart!” In the end, Dorian notes, “I am too much concentrated on myself. My own personality has become a burden to me.” He takes a knife and plunges it through his chest heinously bringing about the very thing he had spent every waking hour trying to flee.

The secular perception of death as the absolute threat to life has become so engrained in modern culture that we even see its influence among Christians. One need only look at our vocabulary when referring to funerals. A so-called “Celebration of Life” has commonly come to replace the Catholic designation Mass for the Dead or Funeral Liturgy. Any kind of terminology that hints at death or serves as a reminder of mortality is hurriedly downplayed. In an attempt to be pastoral and uplifting, we condense the Paschal Mystery to a one-sided emphasis on the Resurrection. But the ideology of such a change does not authentically reflect the ethos of the Church’s doctrine. The Resurrection cannot be reduced to a comforting sentiment employed to sideline death or placate the pain of facing our finitude. In so doing, we lose the thrust of the Gospel as we retract the most compelling component of its message. Labeling Catholic funeral ritual as a sheer “Celebration of Life” truncates this evangelical principle in two ways.

First, it inadvertently depreciates the profundity of Jesus’ Resurrection, failing to acknowledge the whole truth of “Christ crucified” who enters into the depths of human suffering by “becoming sin,” put “to death in the flesh” and descending into hell as emissary “to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago” (2 Cor. 5:21, 1 Cor. 1:23, 1 Pet. 3:19–20). Christ’s crucifixion and descent to the realm of the dead is what secures the sense of our dying being no longer a definitive violence to our nature. On the contrary, by the grace of God, dying becomes yet another way of belonging to the Lord.

Death indeed loses its sting, but not by disappearing from history. In fact, something even more amazing happens: death itself becomes an instance of communion, a manifestation of God’s glory. This is what allows St. Paul to boldly claim that if we “die with Christ” then “death is gain,” not loss (Rom. 6:8, Phil. 1:21). St. Francis of Assisi says it well: “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister, Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape.” In Jesus, death ceases to be an enemy, and is now a sibling whom we should embrace in due course at the allotted time with open arms and a peaceful heart.

This leads to the second issue with the idiom “Celebration of Life,” which is that it hollows out the significance of what it means for a baptized Christian to “die and rise with the Lord” (2 Tim. 2:11). Funerals are not intended to be a mere reminiscing or eulogizing of past events. This is fine in a non-liturgical context, but unsatisfactory for an appreciation of the spiritual reality. The purpose of a Mass for the Dead is not primarily to recognize what the deceased accomplished in their lifetime—regardless of how inspiring or touching that may be—but rather to uphold what was accomplished by Christ in them through the sacrament of baptism. In turn, this leads the Church to implore God’s mercy for the salvation of their soul as he brings about the fulfillment of their vocation to holiness received through the baptismal waters. Thus, we pray immediately following the death of the faithful: “Hear our prayers for your servant . . . Forgive his sins and failings and grant him a place of refreshment, light and peace.”[2] The prayers of the dead find their orientation at the beginning of the Funeral Mass when the presider blesses the remains with water asking that the deceased who was baptized with Christ and died a death like his may be raised with him on the last day (Order of Christian Funerals).

In light of the observations offered above, an obvious question arises about the nature of funerary theology. What does the Church have to say about death? An exhaustive explanation is not possible in this short essay. However, like all things ecclesial, the best answer is witnessed in the Church’s worship. Liturgy is catechetical, it both transforms and informs while revealing the essence of faith. Regarding the funeral liturgy specifically, there are a number of resources both scriptural and sacramental that provide a better understanding. For our reflections, we will focus on the preeminent symbol of the Funeral Liturgy, the Paschal Candle, and its theological significance as the penultimate summary of the Church’s teachings on a Christian death.

The Paschal Candle and the Mystery of a Christian Death

The predominant symbol of the funeral liturgy is the Paschal Candle. The profundity of this sign is often overlooked, especially considering the rarity with which the Church utilizes it. In fact, the Paschal Candle is mandatory for only three liturgical events: Easter, beginning with the Vigil of Holy Saturday, Baptism, and Funerals. This in itself is a powerful statement which can be appreciated in relation to the “greatest and most noble of all solemnities,” the crowning jewel of the liturgical year: the Easter Vigil.

Therefore, dearest friends,
standing in the awesome glory of this holy light,
invoke with me, I ask you,
the mercy of God almighty,
that he, who has been pleased to number me,
though unworthy, among the Levites,
may pour into me his light unshadowed,
that I may sing this candle’s perfect praises.[3]

With soaring prose, the deacon addresses God’s People in the Exultet, gazing upon the newly lit Candle of Pasch and imploring all present to honor the victory of Christ who “dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners.” Since the fourth century, Christians of Gaul and Hispania have chanted this ancient hymn, welcoming the “pillar of fire . . . hallowed to the honor of Christ’s name . . . to overcome the darkness of night.”

The Paschal Candle begins as the only source of light in the celebration, its lonesome flame hanging aspiringly upon the cloak of eventide. With the crucified Messiah, the Candle is cast into the abyss of Sheol and becomes the “sign of Jonah,” a muted word that speaks in its solitude. How overwhelming the void seems! How can anything good come from it? How can hope find refuge in such a place? As the Candle processes deeper into Nyx’s veil, little sparks spring up around it, birthed from the single fire. The solitude becomes communion, the lone Nazarene becomes the Head of a Body composed of many parts (1 Cor. 12:12); the Church is illumined rebuking the night as a false god.

Here we see the primary symbolism of the Paschal Candle: it is a sign of Christ’s descent into the realm of the dead, a reminder that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” but one who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave . . . and being obedient to death” (Heb. 4:15, Phil. 2:7–8). Too often, this stunning truth is under-emphasized, even when celebrating funerals. We tend to jump straight to Christ’s Resurrection as the exclusive revelation of God’s glory. Yet, the Church teaches otherwise. The Victimae paschali precedes the Resurrexit sicut dixit; He is risen because He is the sacrificial victim. His power lies in being the slaughtered lamb who went meekly before the shearers, and only in this way is he the “one who is raised” (Is. 53:7, 2 Cor. 4:14). It is his radical abandonment to the Father, the completeness of the “not my will but yours,” that marks Jesus’ Kingship revealing him as the “beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” and the one to whom “all things are subjected,” even death (Luke 22:42, Matt. 3:17, 1 Cor. 15:26-28). Thus, John’s eschatological vision sees the “Lamb that was slain” as the one “standing at the center of the throne” (Rev. 5:6).

St. Paul constructs his evangelical program around this mystery, tying it to the sacrament of baptism: “We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life . . . For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection” (Rom. 6:4–5). The Patristic Church prioritized this connection between death and baptism to such an extent that they began including the Paschal Candle as an essential element of the baptismal liturgy, a natural outgrowth of its presence in the Easter Vigil at which the catechumens were initiated into the Church.

Over the centuries, this practice was extended to include Masses for the Dead with either funerary candles of unbleached wax lit around the pall or the Paschal Candle itself in a place of prominence by the ambo or altar. The Candle stands, therefore, as a potent aide-mémoire of the baptismal indelibility of a Christian soul, whose identity as an “adopted son or daughter” is never wiped away nor does it dissipate with death (Rom. 8:14–17).

We see lucid synopses of this theology in the initiatory, offertory, prefatory, and concluding prayers of the Funeral Liturgy. For example, in the Rite of Committal we hear the presider say:

Almighty God,
you created the earth and shaped the vault of heaven;
you fixed the stars in their places.
When we were caught in the snares of death
you set us free through baptism;
in obedience to your will
our Lord Jesus Christ
broke the fetters of hell and rose to life,
bringing deliverance and resurrection
to those who are his by faith.
In your mercy look upon this grave,
so that your servant may sleep here in peace;
and on the day of judgement raise him up
to dwell with your saints in paradise.

Thus, the relationship between the Paschal Mystery, Baptism and Death comes full circle with the Paschal Candle as the thematic sign drawing these three realities into a unitive paradigm.

So, what is the Church’s response to death? What does her theology constitute? A full-fledged contemplation upon the crucified and risen Lord present in history. This is not a simple recollection, but rather a dynamic “seeing” mediated by the liturgy and rituals of the funeral rites. The life of Jesus is present mysteriously in the birth and death of every Christian. Gazing through the lens of baptism and nourished by the Eucharistic sacrifice, we are able to genuinely celebrate the death of the faithful knowing that those saddened by the certainty of dying might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come . . .” and that “indeed for the faithful . . . life is changed not ended.”[4]

[1] Axelrod, E. M., Zombies, Divorce, & the Internet, 2014.

[2] Ritual Prayers After Death, 107.

[3] Missale Romanum, “Rubrics for the Easter Vigil,” no. 2.

[4] Roman Missal, Preface I for the Dead.

Fr. Blake Britton is a priest of the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, currently studying in the STL program at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute. He is author of the book Reclaiming Vatican II and a contributor to Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Ministries.

Posted on January 2, 2024

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