Burying the Dead/Praying for the Living and the Dead
Friday, 04 November 2016 00:00


 The Year of Mercy



Burying the Dead/Praying for the Living and the Dead

EDITOR’S NOTE: This marks the last of a series of reflections on the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy that we have offered in observance of the Year of Mercy, promulgated by Pope Francis. The jubilee year began on Dec. 8, 2015, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and will end on Nov. 20, 2016, the Feast of Christ the King.

 By Father David Misbrener

It is always difficult to lose a family member. During the month of November we honor our dead in a special way. This begins with All Souls Day, and now in many parishes, priests will put the prayer petitions and memorial envelopes on the altar for the month of November. I still follow a beautiful custom I learned in the Byzantine Church. I read the names of families on those envelopes after every Mass during the week and intone the beautiful, but somber, melody of “Eternal Memory” each time.

This is the time of year for reflection. Perhaps with the swirl of the autumn leaves and the cool, crisp air that comes during this time of year, during a walk or in prayerful meditation, I find myself drawn back to my grandma’s house and, in particular, sitting at the kitchen table. As a boy I reveled in the stories of the Old Country and never tired of hearing the stories of long-dead relatives. Those stories never grew old. I think I’m able to tell a good story, thanks to the wisdom of my grandmother.

My Grandpa and Grandma Misbrener were immigrants from Croatia. They came to the United States not all that long ago, back in 1955. Since my dad was also born in Croatia, it makes me the “first generation” American on my dad’s side.

Like many of the foreign-born ladies of the time, my grandma was an excellent cook. I spent a great deal of my early life sitting at my grandma’s table, eating those wonderful meals and listening to stories. I’d hear the same familiar stories about family members back home or about the long-dead ghosts of relatives I never knew but wanted to.

I’d like to think that those stories helped me when ministering to many families and individuals in their grieving process through the years.

My grandparents died, after 69 years of marriage, within six months of each other.

I was able to celebrate my grandparents’ life and journey in the Catholic tradition – a tradition that is challenged today on a number of fronts. In today’s culture, the obituary columns are filled with references to “no services” or “a memorial will be held at the convenience of the family.” Other obits give directions to a service at the funeral home or perhaps at the graveside. And then there is the occasional “celebration” to be held at a hall of some kind. I remember once holding a graveside service where only one other person was there with me. Family members had been arguing with each other and the burial was a secret one.

 All of these practices miss the point of the Catholic respect for the dead and our belief in the resurrection of the body.

The Corporal Works of Mercy that Pope Francis had encouraged us to practice and that we have been reading about in this Year of Mercy are generally taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew (chapter 25) – feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the traveler, comfort the sick, and visit the imprisoned.

However, the origin of the merciful act of burying the dead is found in chapter one of the Old Testament Book of Tobit. Tobit risked his own life to bury the dead. Jews considered any other treatment of the dead “a horror.”

From that ancient practice, the Catholic Church has derived its tradition of mourning and praying for and respectfully burying our loved ones. As it is written in Ecclesiastes 12:7: “And dust returns to the Earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

Many families today choose to ignore these opportunities or are insufficiently grounded in their own belief to honor the wishes of their now-deceased loved one. It is a pity some choose convenience over love and mercy. I often share with my people who are planning their funerals, to make sure that they have what they want, including a funeral Mass. There is nothing sadder than when a faith-filled person dies who was a church-goer all their life and is denied a true Christian burial.

 Father David Misbrener is pastor of St. Peter of the Fields, Rootstown.