By MaryLou Molitor
for the ICR
Catholics traditionally observe November as a time dedicated to praying for the dead, specifically those souls who are still in Purgatory, waiting for the day when they will be joyfully welcomed into eternal bliss with God and all the saints. On November 1, we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints, and on November 2, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day). We remember those from our own families and parishes who have gone before us and await the Kingdom. It’s also an ideal time to contemplate the very real fact that our lives are short and will end, all too soon, in death. The Latin phrase “Memento Mori” – literally, “remember death” or, more specifically, “remember your own death” – is a not-so-subtle reminder of this. Remembering our own mortality and the hope of resurrection in Christ is an essential dimension of Christianity with a long and venerable history.
Medieval saints are sometimes portrayed contemplating a human skull, an obvious reminder of their own mortality. For example, you may be familiar with the Caravaggio painting of St. Jerome writing at his desk, a skull perched nearby on an open book. The phrase “Memento Mori” was famous even in ancient Rome. The second-century Christian writer Tertullian relates that in his day, Caeser, when accorded a tribute upon his entry into the city following a successful campaign, was accompanied by a man seated behind him in the chariot, whispering in his ears, “Look behind you; remember you are but a man” (Tertullian Apology 33). Remembering one’s mortality was, and is, an effort to keep the ego in check, reminding us that, even at the height of our glory, our fame and power are transient, and we could die at any time. It reminds us of our dependence upon God.
Visiting cemeteries is a great practice that can help us “remember our death.” It’s especially sobering for me when I visit my own gravesite, which already has a headstone declaring my date of birth, with the date of death waiting to be engraved. As I pray for my late husband there, I also contemplate that empty space on my headstone: How many more days will God give me? Do I value each day as a gift? What kind of death is in store for me? Will I welcome it, regardless of how painful or sudden it may be? Each trip to the cemetery elicits new and richer insights and is an occasion for deeper prayer.
We had a wonderful Catholic friend, now deceased, who regularly visited Morris Hill Cemetery, going directly to the St. John’s section and praying for the priests who are laid to rest there. Of course, he did not know most of them personally, but he was grateful to them because he knew that the Church in Idaho was built on their selfless service. What a wonderful example of dedication to the priests who have served this diocese for more than a hundred years.
My late husband, Bill, attended many funerals. He was fortunate to be self-employed and, therefore, able to adjust his work schedule to accommodate funeral Masses during the day. He considered it an honor to “bury the dead” (a corporal work of mercy) and to honor their lives by his attendance. When possible, he always attended the funerals of his grade school or high school classmates. Many had long-since abandoned their Catholic faith, so he felt a particular urgency to continue praying for them. At his own funeral in 2018, I was greatly consoled by the presence of hundreds of friends and acquaintances who filled the Cathedral to honor his memory and to pray for him. It remains a vivid memory and a valuable reminder for me of the importance of doing the same.
Yogi Berra once quipped, “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t go to yours.” This humorous statement rings differently in Catholic ears. We hear the humor, but also feel the joy of knowing the Saints and angels do, in fact, celebrate with us, participating in our liturgies that join heaven and earth in praise of God. November reminds us of our communion and spiritual sharing with the Church already in heaven. This is an important part of the meaning of the Solemnity of All Saints, something that often gets lost in the secular celebration of Halloween.
I was reminded recently of just how important praying for the dead is. Flip-ping through my late husband’s Daily Roman Missal, I spotted a neatly printed list he had taped on the inside front cover. On it were numerous family and friends’ names and dates of death. Then I noticed small strips of yellow sticky note paper on various feasts and memorials, names of those who had died on those dates. Bill loved sticky notes and used them constantly. So, I guess it was only natural that he would use them to remind himself to pray for the deceased, especially on the anniversary of their deaths.
One sticky note, toward the back of Bill’s missal, marks a “Prayer for the Moment of Death” – obviously something he recited regularly,
“O Lord, my God,
from this moment on
I accept with goodwill,
as something coming from your hand,
whatever kind of death you want to send me,
with all its anguish, pain and sorrow.
Take some time during this month of November to contemplate death. It will change the way you live. Memento Mori.
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