November is the month during which Christians traditionally pray for and remember in a special way our loved ones who have died. The reality about the human condition is that we will all die some day – Benjamin Franklin captured it well when he said: “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”.
Death brings with it tremendous suffering and grief for those who are left behind. Even when someone we love has died after a long and painful illness, there is the heartache of that profound knowledge that things will never again be the same. Of course, for those of us who believe in the world that is to come, there is comfort that we will – please God – be reunited again, but this doesn’t take away from the grief and loss.
Nor should it: if as Christians we follow Christ’s example we need only recall the episode recounted in John’s Gospel where Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus causing onlookers to remark “See how much he loved him!”
Some of the Church’s critics have remarked that Catholics have a closeness to the dead that borders on the morbid. This is to misunderstand the fundamental belief that we have that the dead remain with us and as part of us in a new way after their passing. The Church’s liturgy captures this beautifully in the preface for Masses for the dead in the Roman Missal:
“In him who rose from the dead,
our hope of resurrection dawned.
The sadness of death gives way
to the bright promise of immortality.
Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.”
We don’t live in a culture that is very comfortable with death. Technological advances have led to a situation where death can increasingly be postponed, but it remains an inevitable factor.
The month of November – the month of the Holy Souls – is a time that can help us reflect on the reality of death as a passage from one way of being to another way of being.
A visit to a cemetery or graveyard forms part of the routine of many believers during the month. We should pause to think about those who are left behind, too. Long after the fuss surrounding death and funerals abates, loneliness and grief remain. A quick visit or a few words of concern and encouragement may be just what someone needs to help them keep going in a particular moment.