God did not create humanity to die. In Eden, he gave the Tree of Life. He created us for unending relationship with Him as his children. But sin brought death into the world. Sin tears everything apart. It separates. Death is the separation of the body from the spirit. It’s the rending apart of God’s most wondrous creation – the human person. Death is a great horror – so much so that even Jesus faced great anxiety about it in the Garden of Gethsemane (at least that was part of his anguish).
But when Jesus freely embraced death in payment for our sins and conquered it through his Resurrection, he transformed death into an act of saving love. His disciples don’t need to be anxious about death anymore. Jesus has conquered it. By his grace, we can conquer it too. Jesus transformed suffering and death into an act of love. By his grace we can suffer and die for love of others too. Jesus made death a door to glory. By his grace we can pass through the door of death into the glory of the eternal kingdom.
Yet, how do we treat death as Catholics? Listen to what people say at wakes and funerals. Things like:
“It’s such a shame. She was so young.”
“He lived a good life.”
“At least she’s not suffering anymore.”
“He’ll always live on . . . in our memories.”
These statements reflect a secular vision of death. While they might seem to be nice, sympathetic things to say to the grieving, the problem with every one of these statements is that it lacks hope. As Catholics we don’t believe death is an end. We know it to be the beginning of eternity.
And our loved ones are not gone! They live on – not just in our memories. They are really and truly alive!
But the other mistake Catholics make is to prematurely canonize the dead.
“I’m sure he’s in Heaven.”
“At least now she’s in a better place.”
“He’s smiling down on us from above.”
“I’m sure she’s happy to be reunited with all her loved ones.”
While we don’t want to treat death as a hopeless tragedy, we also never assume our loved ones are in Heaven. Why? Because there’s also a chance that they’re in Purgatory. Purgatory is the process in which God completes the act of grace he started within us during our life. If we have not been perfected in love when we die, God will purify our hearts so we can be in His presence. But God set it up so that His family would care for each other and stay connected to each other even beyond the grave. The souls in purgatory need our help in their process of purification. We help them through our prayers, by having Masses offered for them, and by performing acts called indulgences.
So if we assume our loved one is in Heaven, we don’t pray for them like we should. We leave them without the help God wants us to give them.
So what’s the proper attitude toward death? The proper attitude is to hope that our loved ones are in Heaven, but to assume they’re in Purgatory – to pray for them, love them and support them even through the veil of death.
Jeff Arrowood is the Natural Family Planning Educator for the Diocese of LaCrosse.
You can contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org