1 & 2 November 2008. Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed
Wis 3, 1-9; Psalm 23; Rom 5, 5-11; John 6, 37-40
I too have not been spared from the experience of death. My blood relatives and friends died both from natural and tragic causes. Some died from complications arising from diabetes and hypertension. One was killed from a car theft. And some from vehicular accidents. Another from addiction. I had friends and students who died in their teens. In whatever manner they died, I have grappled with the why of it all. And I never arrived at an answer. But having no answer in the arena of the “whys” does not necessarily mean that I have not been consoled. It was faith that gave me assurances.
Death is a reunion. Every wake is a time when friends and family come together. Even those who are at odds with each other come and set aside their enmity. They may not ‘talk’ to each other, but you see everyone in one place at one time. Grief tends to bring people closer. I guess, grief does not need words. We usually disagree because of things we say. But we agree when there are no words, but a warm embrace, a head on the shoulder, a hand that seeks another. In mourning, we give ourselves time until our hearts are used to the absence. To be used to the absence does not mean to forget. In fact, our memory consoles us.
But there is something deeper than this. Union is a matter of memory and the heart. Think of our loved ones in another country. We are used to their absence, but we do not think that we are ‘separated’ from them. Our love is beyond boundaries and distance. The same way, when someone passes away. When we come to visit their graves, it is because we do not want to forget; it is to affirm that we are still united with them. This is a time when heaven and earth become one. This is our faith: this is what we call, the communion of saints. We are with them, in union with them. If we can email our friends abroad; we too can pray for them and they too pray for us.
Death is not an end, but a transition to a better life. The preface of Christian death says that “life is changed, not ended.” Death and life are two sides of one coin. We see newness, because something else dies. Seeds die for plants to grow. Cell divisions are processes of death and life. When we are able to outgrow our childishness, we mature. Generations have to give way to new generations. When we experience even tragic deaths, we cope with it and move on. We can grapple on the why, let our hearts heal, but it should not paralyze us. The mature response to death is to live meaningfully.
The measure of a good death is in our contribution for the betterment of the new generation. When my dad passed away, I have vowed to continue his life by continuing the goodness that he was. What we celebrate as families have been handed down from generations: recipes of our grandmothers, talents and abilities that marked our families, heirlooms and antique pieces. Each of them is a homage to the past. And we have to be grateful to them. What we celebrate as community and as Church have been contributions of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ — the many people who validated our faith. These are our saints including those unproclaimed like my grandmother who rose above her problems from the novenas she recited every night, my father who believed in me and thus gave me the confidence and courage needed in my work as a Jesuit priest.
It is not an accident then that cemeteries are holy places. Because cemeteries are reminders that we too, can contribute to the well-being of our families and communities. That is why we should be grateful to traditions. It is just unfortunate that we react to traditions because we think that traditions are closed to changes. In fact, traditions should be open to changes: we build from the contributions of the past generations, and we put our mark on it by continuation, modification or trying out new ones. To continue the tradition becomes new because we affirm it so. Our values does not change because generations affirm it constantly as important and meaningful. Those who ratify it again belong to a new generation. Every new life builds on the old. Who am I now is a contribution of the lives of my grandparents, my dad, my friends and students who have gone ahead of me.
The preface of the mass for the dead says that ‘the sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality.” No one wants to vanish. We want to be immortals. The good thing is: we are. On earth we become immortal to people who remember us. In the after life, we live forever.