Sunday, August 24, 2008


Today's Gospel being the account of the raising to life of the only son of the widow of Naim, Fr Rowe took this as a cue to preach on death - for, just as that youth was struck down in the prime of life, at some unknown day and hour we too shall die: but, unlike him, it is most unlikely we shall be miraculously resuscitated.

Therefore, we ought focus on death, our ineluctable fate.

Fr observed that the sight of a hearse or coffin or funeral or burial ought move us to pray for the deceased.  Just as it is a corporal work of mercy to bury the dead, so it is a spiritual work of mercy to pray for the dead: thus we should assist at funerals when possible.

To better instruct us, he detailed parts of the funeral liturgy and their significance.

At the news of death, and at the time of a funeral, the church bell rings out the solemn death knell: by which the faithful are bidden to pray for the holy souls in Purgatory, and to assemble for the obsequies.

The priest and people go to meet the body, and it is borne to church, with Psalms 129 and 50 - the De profundis and Miserere - chanted.  While priest and people will be in black, the colour of mourning, we ought not bewail like the pagans who have no hope (cf. I Thess. iv, 13b), nor indulge in melodramatic ululations, nor perpetuate suchlike follies.  The early Christians rather rejoiced at the passage of their brethren into eternal life, but, given the manifold dangers of the world, and our awareness of the less-than-perfect lives of even believers to-day, the Church calls us to a moderate and rational grief, mingled with prayer for deliverance from Purgatory for the departed soul.

Before the body is carried the crucifix and candles, representing unto us that Christ's all-meritorious death is our only hope of salvation, and reminding us that once the faithful had perforce furtively to bury the Christian dead by torchlight in the catacombs, whilst furious persecution raged against ours, the only true religion.

Several times in the funeral rites, the corpse is aspersed and thurified: this signifies that prayer for the dead tempers the fires of purgatory and pleases the Almighty (as well as reminding us that the Christian departed was baptized and therefore made holy and fit for heaven, tho' required to live justly, soberly and piously). 

 The body of a layman is placed with the head altarward, for God shall judge his soul; but that of a priest is laid with head toward the congregation, for the priest shall be judged not only by the Lord, but, as it were, by his flock, for he must answer for all his ministrations toward them.*  

[*UPDATE: Did I get this mixed up in my hazy memory?  A correspondent tells me the bodies actually go the other way round!  Whoops.]

Since, as once with the only son of the widow of Naim, in olden days bodies were brought into church exposed on a bier, a black pall is cast over the body so as not to affright the people in church, even though nowadays a closed coffin is employed.

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is next offered up for the eternal repose of the faithful departed, in presence of the corpse - or, if need be, a catafalque representing the body is erected.  (This was done for the memorial Mass of a friend of mine, Brett O'Meara - God rest his soul - who died on the 12th of May 2003.  I attended his actual funeral in country Victoria, but, since he had preference for the Latin Mass, arrangements were made to have a second memorial Mass, a Missa cantata, in Melbourne at the end of May that year.)

After Mass, the coffin is carried forth for burial, with the chanting of the Benedictus, and final prayers at the graveside.  The body is buried into the earth, since the earth has it were rights over the body, being made from the earth as Genesis avers, and as we are reminded each Ash Wednesday.  The priest and all present pour handfuls of earth onto the coffin.  Pagans being enamoured of cremation, the early Christians had a horror of it - hence burial in the earth.

Die we must: pray for a good and happy death, asking the prayers of St Joseph, patron thereof.

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