In the October following my son Peter’s death, I remember walking through Sam’s Club and seeing one of those inflatable light up things for the yard. This one had lots of skeletons and disembodied heads and the grim reaper with sickle in hand. I remember getting a little indignant, in the way you would if your religion, race or ethnicity were being caricatured. “Um, excuse me? My son is dead… I don’t appreciate you portraying dead people as terrifying, brain-sucking zombies. I think my son is far too caught up in the amazing brilliance of the Beatific Vision to be concerned with sucking out anyone’s brain, thank-you-very-much.”
Even in the moment, the ridiculousness of that sentiment did not escape me. But I do continue now, when I see gory Halloween displays, to wonder what’s going on there culturally. Even the nursing home across the street from my office has Styrofoam tombstones on their lawn. You would think that would hit a little too close to home for them! I am no sociologist, but I think part of it is a manifestation of how freaked out people are about death. And let’s be honest. If we’re freaked out, it’s for good reason.
Death is a result of the fall of Adam and Eve, as a consequence of sin. Our immortal souls were never supposed to separate from our bodies. This is a fact we try to convey to our preschooler when the topic inevitably comes up around our house. Sometimes people refer to God “taking” family members in death. We are careful to avoid this term. While it is true that God does permit death, I believe it breaks his heart. I have often thought about Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. I don’t think he was sad so much for Lazarus (who he was about to raise), but for the violence that death always is. He was there in the Garden, after all. Mankind was the crowning jewel of creation, meant to shine with the light of heaven’s glory. For Jesus to see these precious creations trade their dignity for the decay of death would be plenty reason enough to cry.
This is of course (as we put it to our superhero fanatic) why it was so important to Jesus to conquer the Ultimate Bad Guy: Death. Since Christ has opened heaven, we don’t need to be afraid of death unless we are not in God’s friendship (in which case we should be very afraid)! Though as Catholics we don’t believe in “once saved, always saved”, we have the sure hope that our merciful Savior will always forgive us as long as we seek that forgiveness. As hard as it was to say goodbye to our Peter, and later his sister Gianna, we grieved knowing that they died without having a chance to stain their baptismal garments through sin. They are in heaven, waiting for us and praying we get there too.
November is the last month of the liturgical year, and one where we specifically remember and pray for the dead. Catholics are comfortable in paradox, and this month is no exception! It is a mix of our worst fears and our greatest hope. By remembering our own beloved dead, we recall with fresh grief the pain that the separation of body and soul cause. We weep together with Jesus at the tomb. But of course, we grieve in hope, praying that our loved ones would be purified quickly so as to enter into the glory that Jesus won for them. Then we are called to remember that this bittersweet reality of death will come for us one day too, maybe even today. This is the thought that will liberate us from being chained down by our sorrows, our sin and even all our stuff. Finally, we begin to focus at the end of the month on the day when Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, finishing the new creation and bringing to fruition that which the prophets foretold: a day when every tear will be wiped away and every sorrow will be turned to joy.
Copyright 2009 Libby DuPont