Building a culture of… death?

Originally published 13 October, 2008

Much is said today about a culture of life, and it is done so rightly. The culture of death is in fact a culture surrounding true death, eternal damnation and the vices that please the devil.

Nevertheless, I’ve chosen a provocative title for this post because as Catholicism is a culture of life, it is also a culture of death, that is holy death, because one can not enter eternal life except through the door opened by death itself. As through the example of our Blessed Lord, we can’t have an Easter Sunday without first having a Good Friday.

Traditionally, death has been quite visible to Catholics, and the saints are often depicted with skulls, by skulls, and at times embracing skeletons or before the Grim Reaper. At Requiem Masses (until about 40 years ago) priests wore black, to symbolize death, the shortness of life, and to remind us that our time is coming, though we know not when. To a modern Catholic, such a visage almost belongs to another religion. The first time I saw a requiem Mass with black vestments, I was still new to the Traditional Liturgy, and truthfully, it was something that almost contrasted with my experience of the liturgy in the Novus Ordo. There, for funerals they wear white vestments and release balloons as a sign the person is in heaven (which is blasphemous since the point of a funeral Mass is to pray for the soul because we don’t know where it is). Black vestments, 100% beeswax candles (a rubric for requiems), pictures in the missal adorned with skulls, all of these and the glorious Dies Irae were something I had never seen in 3 years of being Catholic, and it not only seemed like a relic, but it also seemed alien.

This is because it is alien to modern culture, and only within the Church’s classical Liturgical tradition East and West is the concept incorporated at all, with the exception of those priests who have brought it back into the Novus Ordo. The loss of the concept of death has also led to the loss of its fear, and its preparation. There was some idiotic shirt when I was growing up, which said “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Now, even from a non-religious standpoint, he who dies is just plain dead! He doesn’t get to take anything with him, neither money nor toys.

This became absolutely clear to St. Francis Borgia, a holy Jesuit whose feast we celebrated only a few days ago. He walked with the casket of Queen Isabella of Portugal, Charles V’s wife and mother of the future Philip II on procession. On the way it was opened, exposing her rotting flesh and the stench of her corpse. She was the married to the greatest monarch of all Christendom, the most renowned, the most revered.  She was seen as the ideal of a monarch, and also the incarnation of heavenly glory. When the flesh rotted from her face there wasn’t a bone’s difference between her and a peasant draped in rags. This thought was not lost on St. Francis Borgia, who contemplated the corpse when all others had run away due to the stench. He vowed never again to serve a master who should perish and rot, nor work for glory that will sit here on the earth when he rots, but rather, to serve the Lord of Heaven and Earth who alone shall not die. When his wife died, he renounced his titles and became a Jesuit.

Saints are often depicted with skulls to be a reminder of death. St. Charles Borromeo is said to have kept a skull on his desk, likewise Cardinal Baronius the great Church historian who inscribed into it an expression used by Carthusian monks when greeting each other “memento mori“. Our culture, while on the one hand exulting in death, be it in war, video games, murder, or the mass murder of our unborn children, fears it on the other. No one stops to think that the world will end, that they will end. First and foremost in this category, are the majority of baptized Catholics in our culture. Why do I mention that? Because our empirical experience can verify this. There is not enough thought of death for whatever reason one might gather. Instead, they are worried about ordering the house, investments, jobs, computers, internet, friends, parties, and in the back of their minds Mass on Sunday, and for a smaller segment, confession once in a while. Do they ever stop and think that they might die today? Might you not die from a massive heart attack as you read this? (God forbid)

How many people are there, who not only delay a thought of death until it confronts them, but also, say idiotic things like “I’ll convert on my deathbed!” I can not tell you how many people, be they Catholics or Protestants, justify their evils by claiming they will convert on their deathbed? How many more non-believers who entertain some thought of afterlife, say “well, I’ll convert on my deathbed.” What if there is no deathbed? What if you die in your sleep, a ripe 45, thinking that you’ve got 50 more years? What if you die in a car accident, which is a good chance for Americans since more of us are killed by traffic incidents than by guns, disease and natural disasters put together! There is no time to stop and say as much as “Lord I’m sorry”, and if one dies in mortal sin he will go straight to hell.

St. Alphonsus Ligouri says on this subject:

The time of death is a time of storm and confusion. At that awful hour sinners call on God for assistance; but they invoke his aid through the fear of hell, which they see at hand, and not with true contrition of heart. It is for this reason that God is deaf to their cry; it is for this reason also that they will then taste the fruit of their wicked life. What they have sown they shall reap. Ah! it will not then be enough to receive the sacraments; it is necessary at death to hate sin, and to love God above all things. But how can he, then hate forbidden pleasures, who has loved them till that moment? How can he love God above all things, who has till then loved creatures more than he has loved God? (Preparation for Death, Consideration X)

To bring Catholics back to a holy consideration of death, we must rebuild a culture of holy death, where we present to men the reality of our death, and its cruel inescapable reality. The first step as always is through the re-establishment of sacred signs. By this I mean common requiem Masses, and common does not mean every day, but frequently in a parish. We need a return of black vestments, or at the very least, funeral Masses ought to be said in purple if not black, and white completely banned. The concept of penance and prayer for the dead is essential not only in forming a healthy eschatology but also in preparing the faithful to seriously contemplate their own deaths. How will you stand before your creator? God is merciful, but He will not be mocked, for He is also just.

Lastly, it should be preached upon as often as possible, and parents should follow the lead of the Church and help their children learn to practice preparation for a Holy death. “Oh that’s so morbid!” Yes. Yet if we consider the saints, or better yet, consider the blessed Fatima children. Our Lady showed them Hell and all of its torments. The Mother of God, so pure, so loving, showed to 3 children the terror and torment of hell! If she can do that, there is simply no good reason why we can not prepare our children for a holy death, which is far less dramatic than showing them hell. These are the building blocks by which we can recover the thought of a holy death in Catholic culture, and through it recover society for the Sacred Heart of Jesus, remembering always that this is not our true home, rather, it is a temporary journey to that blessed Patria which is our eternal resting place, to which we can take nothing with us.

Fac responsum tuum hic...

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