Tempus Fugit. Memento Mori.
Four Latin words describe the traditional attitude toward death, especially our own. Our less economical English language translates the adage as “Time passes quickly. Remember, one day, you will die.”
The phrase recalls a comment I once read about a pious woman. “She died every day that she lived.” She weighed all her actions in their eternal context.
Such attitudes are unpopular today, even among the devout. Most deaths are handled expediently. Reflections on anyone’s death – even a parent’s – that last more than a few days are often considered morbid.
Monuments to Those Who Have Gone Before
It was not always so. A few moments in an old cemetery proves that the memory of the dead was taken seriously. The tombstones are often of significant size. Those old stones bear witness to the characters of the people who erected them.
In my parish’s old cemetery, a pedestaled marble cube marks the graves of the Erney family. A cross surmounts the monument with “IHS” in the center and a carving of Our Lord in the arms of His Blessed Mother at the bottom. It is the resting place of Edward and Mary Theresa who died in 1860 and 1862, respectively, both in their seventies. A most touching engraving is found on the other side of the tombstone where the couple’s daughter-in-law, Catherine is buried. She was only fifty years old at the time of her 1875 death. Her grieving husband, Valentine, had a poem engraved on the stone:
Thus through Eternity mayst thou
No more with death’s seal on thy brow
Lift up thy lamp at Heaven’s own shrine
With splendor quenchless and divine
That gleams in joy from Angel bowers
In God’s immortal land of flowers –
Mid glory that shall never cease.
May thy sweet soul rest in peace.
It is not fine poetry – that is not the point. The inscription speaks volumes about the spouses’ love for each other and their profound hope that Heaven awaited them.
Nearby is the grave of Liborio Butera, who died in 1923 at the age of seven. His parents, Domenico and Madalena, erected a granite monument with a cherub on top with hands clasped in grief and prayer. Two carved doves fly above the Italian inscription. His parents rest under a simpler stone nearby.
Contrast these tributes with the “grave markers” used today. Usually, they are one-by-two-foot brass plaques with the essential data—a name and the years of birth and death. If there is an epitaph, it will be the size of a small tweet. The plaques lie flat on the ground, making it easier to mow the grass.
The Importance of the Traditional Funeral
Tombstones are not the only examples of modern man’s dismissal of death.
A death in the family was once the occasion for putting all other concerns aside. Distant family members drove through the night to arrive at the funeral on time. A priest led a Rosary at the viewing on the evening before the funeral. The body was laid out in the person’s best clothes.
The funeral itself was a three-step process. First was the funeral Mass. Then the mourners’ cars would move in procession to the cemetery for burial. Finally, the family would host a meal for the mourners.
The post-funeral meal was essential. It provided time to reminisce about the deceased. Memories might be serious, but humorous anecdotes might also be told. It was a time when people could visit with fondly remembered friends of the deceased. Younger family members could forge relationships with seldom-seen elders. Family lore was passed from generation to generation. These occasions could last for hours indicating the mourners’ reluctance to say that last good-bye.
Today, viewings and funerals are increasingly rare. The growing popularity of cremation is partly responsible. Forbidden by the Church until the Second Vatican Council, reducing the body to ashes is far more convenient and less expensive than the traditional embalming, casket, vault, and burial.
The final “cremains” can often repose in a closet until the family schedules a memorial service and internment. Some families omit the memorial service altogether and scatter the ashes. The Church still condemns this practice as a denial of the resurrection of the dead. However, the non-Catholic family of a Catholic man I know scattered his ashes in a favorite forest.
There is no longer a dress code at funerals. A death in the family once meant a trip to a nearby shop for a black dress, complete with shoulders, sleeves, and a hemline well below the knee. Gentlemen pulled a black suit out of the closet, to be accompanied by a white shirt and a somber tie. Navy blue or gray suits were acceptable, but black was preferred.
Today, anything goes. Family members often appear in jeans, shorts, t-shirts and so on. I know one fellow who wore camouflage to his grandfather’s funeral because he planned to forego the family dinner and go hunting instead. Nary an admonition was spoken.
Do Modern Attitudes Toward Death Mirror a Lack of Respect for Life?
The modern attitudes toward the burial of the dead indicate a disregard for life. Indeed a society that cares little about the right to life is even less concerned about death.
Many people without religious belief see little significance in death. Absent the hope of the resurrection, such people see no point in burial. With no concept of Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, such people do not value services that pray for the repose of souls. They prefer to acknowledge the death and move on.
With the breakdown of society, people who were not close in life are not expected to be close in death. Thus, a typical funeral is often attended by those who have little to mourn when an elderly relative dies. When grandparents retire to Florida or Arizona, their grandchildren rarely see them. When death comes, the grandchildren’s reactions are limited.
Many see the modern funeral as an inconvenience. They dispense with the affair with as little bother and expense as possible. Then all return to their frenetically intemperate lives.
The real loss goes far beyond etiquette, respect or nostalgia. The funeral should not be a passive event. It should be an occasion of hope for all those who die in the grace of God. The deceased has gone beyond the realm of the Church Militant. Through the ancient rituals of Holy Mother Church, the bereaved pray that their loved one will move quickly through the Church Suffering – Purgatory. The ultimate goal is the Beatific Vision of the Church Triumphant.