Bury the Dead

The first in a series of five Holy Week posts on the Pray Channel at Humane Pursuits: a remembrance by Peter Gallaher

We just hung up with each other, my friend and I.  We’ve known each other since 1956 when we met on the first day of high school.  Our conversation today was about another fellow we met that day.  He died sometime last week, my friend told me.  No one knows when for sure.  He died alone in a big house in upstate New York where he lived, alone, for about forty years after his wife died and his son grew up, went to school, married, then moved away.

“There’ll have to be an investigation, an autopsy and all that,” my friend said.  “Then they can move on.  His son is up there now.  It sure is a mess.”  The thought of a lonely death chilled me.  He had been hospitalized two or three years ago for kidney failure.  We spoke on the phone several times and he begged my prayers.  So sad,  so achingly sad he sounded.

“Will there be a Mass, or a memorial service?” I asked after we had talked about our friend for a while.

“His son says he wants to have something sometime, but hasn’t made plans.  He said he’d let me know.”  We spoke only a little while longer.  I thanked him for calling me and asked to be kept informed as things developed.

I had visions of something months from now, if at all, when traveling is easier. I thought, most folks will excuse themselves because of vacation plans.  These things have become very difficult.   Of course, I wondered what form such a “memorial service” would take. Those going will probably enter some kind of close and quiet place, walls heavy with drapes of a somber shade; a sanctum sanctorum somewhere in the middle of town.  Soft and soothing music will whisper, sweet smells will slide along the currents of the room, palms and other green plastic things will adorn the corners.  Maybe they’ll even be real.  There’ll  be a few chairs in rows, comfortable chairs.  The drapes and thick, yielding carpets will keep the world outside.  When the time comes someone will get up and “remember” the dead man:  his achievements, habits, charm, good things he’d done, the effect he had on folks who knew him.  Maybe one or two others will rise to “remember” him, too.  Of course they’ll endorse whatever the “keynote” rememberer mentioned .

Everyone will stand while some fellow in a dark suit with a black book reads a poem, a prayer, something from Kahlil Gibran.  Then all will leave, have lunch and go home.  One or two fellows will probably linger, go to a nearby tavern and sit around for a couple of hours over drinks talking about their friend.  At least once the words “He’s better off now”, or some variation of the sentiment, will be spoken.  Jokes and old, old stories will be told.  The one who always did will have a few more drinks than he should have had, once again.

And then they will leave, going their separate ways home or God knows where, the work of remembering now done.

Several fellows I know are talking about some kind of scholarship fund in our friend’s memory.  Funds with dead people’s names on them are a very popular way of remembering dead people.  Once a year the letter from the fund arrives with its report of all the good things done during the past year, and the suggestion that more good things may be done by the fund in the year to come … if only.  It involves little enough effort to follow through for the fellow.  What was his name?

A hundred years ago mourning was a public thing that might last a year.  One had time, I guess, in that space, to get over it, to ease back into the living world.  The mourning clothes, the color black, all served to remind oneself and others that death had made a very near visit to this person, to this place – all too common and regular Death.

But I have noticed, as years go by, that fewer people take  the time to think about death, grief, and resurrection through the medium of a funeral Mass and a period of mourning.  It isn’t that people are simply not dying anymore, of course.  The obituary page is still a busy venue.  But (have you noticed it?) fewer and fewer of them are honored by the coming together of their families and friends, to sit with the dead one and pray in public for the dead one’s eternal rest in God’s holy peace.  And those that do come to the funeral?  They too often give evidence in dress, attention paid, participation and posture that they little know or (even less) understand what is taking place and why they are a part of it.

Truly mourning the dead,  honoring their memory by opening oneself to the gift of coming together with others also touched by the loss seems to me to have become a privilege forgotten, so that the invitation to mourn is viewed instead as a rather embarrassing  and awkward imposition on one’s time —  an obligation on a par, I begin to think, with doing something like giving blood.  Someone probably needs to do it, of course.   But….

In these moments of each soul’s transition from mortality to eternity, God’s grace and mercy make their very closest “pass” to the opened hearts of those gathered in honored memory.  So much can be sensed, accepted, and transfigured by a sanctified grieving in the context of sacrament and mystery.  It is worth the effort.

Where does one begin?


[Editor’s note: this is the first in a series of five Holy Week posts on the Pray Channel at Humane Pursuits. Visit the others from Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.]


Peter Gallaher is a retired federal agent residing in Nashua, New Hampshire, where his favorite activities include singing tenor in a small ensemble at funerals, and helping his wife manage The Christian Book Corner, an online Catholic and Christian bookstore.  A prolific poet, photographer, and essayist, Peter maintains four blogs, chief among them An Focal Beag agus Bog (which translates from the Irish to “A Small and Soft Word”), and is a frequent contributor to The Nashua Patch, a local online news source.  While living in Ohio some years back, Peter’s Op-Ed pieces were regularly featured in the Zanesville Times Recorder.

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