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Tag Archive: Funerals

Good Riddance, 2011

Posted: Saturday, December 31, 2011 (8:03 pm), by John W Gillis


This year sucked. It began with my little sister’s funeral, and ended with a malaise lingering on from my mother’s funeral.

For my sister, Mary, death came quickly, and then it came slowly. She was very busy living a vibrant life, when she was suddenly smitten with a terminal cancer. Then she spent a year and a half dying. She tried to keep up the appearances of optimism, but everyone around her knew how the dance was going to end; we just didn’t know quite when. When it came, death came slowly, bleeding her life away as her ministering aunt and other loved ones waited in vigil for the end, which came in the third watch of the night after Christmas Day. She was 49, and left no children to carry her line forward on the Earth.

For my mother, Edna, death came slowly, and then it came quickly. Dying at 79, she had lived a good and full life, touching the lives of many, and leaving a legacy of kindness that, pray God, will redound to her name for generations, even when she herself is forgotten. Having been born with a collapsed lung, her breathing organ was never quite right, and she’d been living with a progressive case of acute Pulmonary Fibrosis for some time, before she up and died on us. Of course, we knew it was coming sooner or later, and she had gotten “old” recently, but still it seemed to come almost out of the blue. True, she had given us a scare the day before, and the family spent Sunday afternoon in the emergency room, wondering if she’d perhaps had a stroke, but she seemed fine by afternoon, had checked out OK medically, and was sent home in the evening. On Monday morning, she died. Just like that. It was October 3rd, the original feast day of St Therese of Lisieux, the saint credited by the family with saving Mom’s life as a newborn, and whose name she was thus given in tribute.

Whatever else may have happened this year seems almost lost in the shadows of these two bookends of death & grief. I’ve looked upon the sorrowful , resigned faces of yet a couple more friends who have had their verdicts of terminal cancer pronounced to them. I’ve watched dozens of co-workers jettisoned from their source of material well-being, as the business world atrophies under corporate & government mismanagement and corruption. I’ve seen the U.S. government run up a debt of unprecedented magnitude – one poised to crush the commonweal of my children and their peers – for the sake of a filched political placidity, while the ruling party successfully smeared the opposition as extremist and non-cooperative for the sin of (futilely) demanding a roadmap to fiscal sanity as the price for complicity in the mortgaging of the futures of those we have a moral duty to protect & defend. Shameful.

As for myself, I can’t get out of my own way: I had targeted early December for completion of my prerequisite course work at Franciscan University, but have been scuffling badly since mid-October, and don’t even know how to get back on track at this point.

On the bright side, this was the year that Joyce leveraged her imposed unemployment into an opportunity to pursue her long-time desire to get into professional dog grooming. The Boston Bruins are suddenly the best hockey team in the world for the first time since I could sing alto, and last spring they gave us one of the greatest hockey games I’ve ever seen (Game 7 of the Conference Finals against Tampa Bay).

Furthermore, as of yet at least, no crowd of self-entitled, self-righteous, unemployed ne’er-do-wells have converged to “occupy” my backyard, demanding that I succor them by paying off their insane student loans for stupidly bloated college tuitions I could never afford for either myself or my own kids (we found other ways to achieve what we needed to achieve). That’s a plus. And I still have my own job; my kids are all healthy and safe; we’re coming up on a leap-year – which means a “real” anniversary for Joyce and I on Feb 29th; Congress reversed the moronic ban on incandescent light bulbs; and Rick Santorum actually appears to have an outside shot at winning the Iowa caucuses, putting the only candidate I actually like from the Republican field in a position to at least temporarily receive some media attention before the big-money candidates get around to burying him under a torrent of glitzy drivel (OK, I also really like and admire Michelle Bachmann, but I’m afraid she would be almost as out-of-her-league in that job as Obama is, speaking of torrents of glitzy drivel from big-money candidates…).

And, lastly, the garage ceiling light bulb is still burning faithfully, almost 40 years after being installed. Yes, the very same light bulb that greeted my mother and father the first time they illuminated their new garage with electricity in June of 1972 continues to shine its light every time I flip the switch. To me, it’s become a symbol of faithfulness and perseverance, and it reminds me unfailingly of my dad. Would that we all could be relied upon so faithfully, as that bulb, to shine forth the light entrusted to us for the sake of others’ seeing their way in the world! I dread the day that bulb blows; I pray it’s not in 2012.

Happy New Year, planet Earth. Choose carefully; choose well. Peace, from here.

“If the Dead are Garbage, then the Living are Walking Garbage.”

Posted: Wednesday, July 14, 2010 (9:41 pm), by John W Gillis


Every now and again, I find myself disputing with advocates of human cremation over the propriety of the process. Cremation has very rapidly become the preferred option, in certain sectors of society, for dealing with the corpses of the deceased. Whereas at one time its appeal may have been pretty much strictly economic to those not strongly influenced by oriental, non-Christian culture (or anti-Christian sentiment), it is these days often pitched as a morally compelling solution to a looming Malthusian crisis of usable land – the argument being that burial unnecessarily consumes land that could be put to more utilitarian use; the accompanying hysterical assertion being that we are running out of land upon which to live because of all the land that is left for the dead.

On the rare occasion I find myself discussing this, I try to make the case that the cremation process – which is by no means a simple incineration, but also involves a subsequent pulverizing of the skeletal remains, with the bones of the deceased being fed, as it were, into a human garbage disposal – is a disrespectful way to treat the body of a deceased loved one. To make the point that it should matter to us how the dead are treated, I’ve asked people if they would consider having their wife/husband/mother/father/etc. disposed of corporeally by being dropped into a vat of acid that would eliminate all traces of the deceased, who could then be simply drained away. I’ve intended it as an over-the-top, reductio ad absurdum argument that might give people pause to stop and think about the importance of respect for the corpse. How naive of me…

David Mills published a post at the First Thoughts blog last Friday entitled Rest in Solution, which linked to a Daily Mail article about Belgium’s plan to wash its dead down the drain, a plan which entails using a potassium hydroxide solution to eliminate the fleshly material of the corpse – leaving the bone matter to be subsequently crushed, as does burning. The big selling point? It’s more eco-friendly than cremation, which emits large amounts of carbon dioxide! Gotta watch that carbon footprint! Given the anti-burial movement’s long history of symbolic and actual rejection of Christian resurrection doctrine, I’m not quite sure what to make of the claim in the Daily Mail that the process, called resomation, comes from a Greek word for the rebirth of the human body (soma meaning body in Greek).

The body reduced to near nothingness seems to be of a piece with modernity’s contempt for the body. Moderns seem largely divided into two silently collaborating camps: those who hold a reductionist, positivistic view of human life comprising only bodily life, unsanctified by the spiritual soul – with all that implies for the dignity of the place of man in the cosmos; and, on the other hand, those who, reviving the ancient errors of Gnosticism, see the body as a kind of unfortunate storage place for a soul. But the body is an integral aspect of the human being: neither the totality of the person, nor an inessential “thing” that exists apart from the self – except in that dreadful state of personal violation we call death.

As a counterweight to the depressing, techno-sterile misanthropy of resomation, Mills provides a second link in his article, this one to a Weekly Standard article from last March by Matt Labash called: Love Among the Ruins. It tells the story of “Father Rick” Frechette’s tireless work to minister to the castaway dead in Haiti – among his other acts of mercy to the people of that broken land. I’ve taken the title of this post from the response he gives in the article to a question about why he expends so much time and energy to minister to those who are already dead, and won’t know the difference:

Frechette thinks about it a long while, then says, “If the dead are garbage, then the living are walking garbage.”

In another place, he speaks about why he carries on, offering his gifts of mercy in what seems to be such a losing battle:

“Sometimes with horrible things, you really feel there is nothing you can do. Nothing. You’re just useless. But over time, you start seeing that to do the right thing no matter what has tremendous power.”

Reading this article feels like taking a warm bath after reading that Daily Mail piece. Strange, considering what a tale of desolation and horror it is. God bless you, Father Rick. I think it’s time for a re-reading of the Book of Tobit.

The Kennedy Funeral & the Faces of Scandal

Posted: Wednesday, September 9, 2009 (11:22 pm), by John W Gillis


There’s sure been a lot of chatter over the past week or so about the Ted Kennedy funeral, and Cardinal O’Malley’s participation in it. This is hardly surprising, given how divisive a character Kennedy was. Cardinal O’Malley, in what strikes me as a surprising move in several respects, has gone public with an explanation of his decision, in response to extensive criticism that undoubtedly ranged in impetus from befuddlement to anger. I appreciate his attempt at explaining himself – as I appreciate the difficulty of this whole problematic affair – but there are some elements of this episode I find deeply troubling.

I was among the many who were dismayed at certain aspects of the handling of the affair, though I didn’t feel it was appropriate to comment on at the time. Then there were  a couple thoughts in the Cardinal’s comments that struck me as diverting focus away from the real issue at hand, and my trouble with the whole matter was compounded when I read this article by Madison (Wisconsin) Bishop Robert C. Morlino. At that point, I’d had enough.

Both men went out of their way to praise Senator Kennedy for the good work that he had done in various areas over the years. Now, whether or not the state-centric, “give a hungry man someone else’s fish” social problem solving approach, endemic to contemporary progressive liberalism which Kennedy exemplified, is truly good work, Kennedy clearly believed it was (as do so many others, including, apparently, both of these bishops). I’ve been to enough funerals to know that it seems to serve a legitimate pastoral purpose toward the bereaved to lionize even the most insignificant of contributions of the deceased, so I can certainly understand the approach in that respect (even if it obscures the real point of the funeral Mass), but not without simultaneously realizing that this was an exceedingly public situation, with a scope of pastoral impact that was not only far broader than the vast majority of funerals, but also decidedly more complex.

One of the more eyebrow-raising comments in Bishop Morlino’s piece was his assertion that the funeral Mass was a source of scandal in that it led people into sinful expressions of un-charitableness toward Kennedy. Archbishop O’Malley also seemed to use the opportunity to take umbrage at the angry, though without his brother bishop’s sharp dramatic flair. These accusations may be true, but they are made at the expense of the recognition of the profound betrayal felt by many good people within the Church – including not only those who fell into vindictiveness, but also many more who held their tongues and prayed for humility – at the sight of Church leaders seeming to shrug their shoulders at the most important spiritual crisis facing our culture. Bishop Morlino’s assertion, in particular, seemed designed to undercut, by anticipation of argument, any valid expressions of criticism stemming from the more obvious interpretation of the scandal attached to this Mass, namely: the projection of the heretical idea that the culture of abortion is – or can be made – compatible with the sacramental life of the Church. It’s not as if the Church is not deeply embroiled in this very heresy on an on-going basis!

I’m not suggesting that the matter of whether or not Senator Kennedy should have been afforded a Catholic funeral is one for you or I to consider, for it is not only not our decision to make, but is dependent in large part upon that which we cannot possibly know – namely his relation to Christ and His Church at his death, a matter ultimately hidden in the interior forum of conscience. Besides, it hardly seems charitable to even consider denying a Catholic funeral to anyone who desired one. But there is an exterior forum as well, which the Church – the episcopacy in particular – has a duty to attend to, and if a latae sententiae excommunication is incurred by a woman procuring an abortion, her abortionist, and any others formally collaborating in the crime, it is awfully hard to see how a legislator who was an open and unapologetic  promoter of abortion “choice” would not also be guilty of formal cooperation when said “choice” was inevitably made. Senator Kennedy’s views and actions in defiance of the moral order – and the Church’s clear teaching – were so well-known as to be notorious. He was the poster child for pro-abortion Catholics.

So while it’s all well and fine for a bishop to presume reconciliation, it seems to me a great disservice to the many looking on, who see only the public record, to make no attempt to publically acknowledge that the crimes committed by Kennedy required repentance and forgiveness. That might be a delicate thing to try to do under the circumstances, but I’m hardly suggesting I think the funeral was a good idea to begin with. And frankly, it would seem to be a pastoral imperative to make it very clear that this rampant heresy of rationalized murder is a clear and present danger to the immortal souls of everyone in the Western world (and beyond). Charity may demand that we assume Ted Kennedy died in a state of grace, but whether he did or not, there is nothing anyone can do to change it now. In other words, the real pastoral issue (e.g. the saving of souls) has little to do with Ted, and much to do with those who have yet to face their own, certain, judgment. If participation in this abortion holocaust is a mortal sin, it is by no means “compassionate” to make it appear that it doesn’t really matter in the end. Who benefits from that, except the devil?

Bishop Morlino complained about a perceived lack of mercifulness coming from the critics within the Church, but the truth is that the notion of mercy was largely missing from the proceedings themselves. I think most of the critics would have been satisfied if the proceedings had reflected a communal plea for God’s mercy upon the soul of a brother sinner; indeed, it could have been a great teaching moment. Instead, we were treated to a polite evasion of the most crucial matters, a liturgical rite lamely disconnected from the spirit of the proceedings, and the public lionization of a notorious sinner within the context of the Mass (some have referred to it as a canonization, and with good reason – it was embarrassing listening to people speak of Kennedy as if he were already in heaven, expressions that were not only vacuous, but, coming during a funeral, violations of canon law).

But what bothers me the most, both in the subtler words of Cardinal O’Malley, and in the harsher words of Bishop Morlino, is the insinuation that those who hold and proclaim the sure and ancient teaching of the Church are responsible for a state of division within the Church – or at least of perpetuating it. It reminds me of the way people blame Pope Paul VI for dividing the Church at the end of the 1960s by publishing Humanae Vitae – as if the dissenters weren’t the ones responsible for the division!

I imagine the bishops are frustrated by the exposure of the rift, but let’s be very clear: there is visible division in the Church stemming from the liberal abortion license because some people support abortion rights in dissent from Church teaching, yet claim to be in Communion with the Church nonetheless. (Actually, the fact that any of the baptized assert abortion rights creates division in the Church, but that takes the matter to another level, beyond the scope of our consideration.) If people get angry at such injustice being done to the Church they love, perhaps it is with good reason, and perhaps they deserve to be treated with a bit more kindness than their shepherds have managed to muster here. God help us if we begin appeasing the demands for unfaithfulness to the truth, for the sake of avoiding uncomfortable conflict.

At the end of the day, though, the real issue seems to me to be the ability of the Church to fulfill her mission to proclaim the Gospel, where the question of her credibility is of paramount importance. The Church may be widely admired for her good works, but she is otherwise seen by many (including more than a few Christians) as just another political player on the world stage – and a clumsy one at that. Nothing in the handling of this matter provided evidence to the contrary, as far as I can see. By disregarding the great moral crisis that hung over the event like a storm cloud, the Church gave the impression that abortion is just another political issue, subject to the ebb and flow of circumstance and expediency. And that plays right into the hands of her enemies, eager to paint the Church’s outrageous claims to moral authority as fraudulent. That might be the most tragic scandal to emerge from this mess.

Funerals and Community

Posted: Saturday, November 1, 2008 (11:45 pm), by John W Gillis


Today was the Feast of All Saints. I slept a little late this morning, and went to Mass across town at St Linus (as I not infrequently do on Saturdays). I was surprised to see a Hearse in front of the church when I pulled up. It’s not unusual for the Saturday morning Mass at St Linus to be a funeral Mass, but with today being a Solemnity, I thought it was peculiar.

But this funeral turned out to be quite different from the other Saturday morning funerals I’ve attended at St Linus. The difference? In this case, Msgr Giggi knew the deceased, who was an active parishioner. The homily was sprinkled with his remembrances of her, and his real love and care for her was very evident. The whole rite was carried out in a most dignified manner, with none of the typical involvements of laypersons who obviously haven’t darkened a church door in some time, and who too often don’t seem to have a clue what Catholic eschatology professes.

I often feel sorry for Msgr Giggi when I end up at these funerals, because he clearly struggles at times to find something appropriate to say in his homilies. I mean, he can certainly speak in general terms about death and dying and the Catholic faith – Lord knows he’s been doing this long enough – but he needs to try to connect with the grieving family on a personal level as well, and when he has no idea whom it is that he is preparing to bury, he’s reduced to repeating platitudes that friends or family memebers have shared with him during the funeral preparations – many of whom apparently do not share from out of a faith-based framework of understanding. I recall Frances, of whom all he could say was that she was a happy person. And I recall Rick the “ash” pile, who was friendly (on that morning, I though I’d walked into a funeral for a newborn, but that’s a story for another day).

Once upon a time, I thought that the local parish daily Mass was the best setting for funerals in general, as it facilitates the participation of the parish community in an important event that has become too remote from the community, too private and clannish. But I was wrong. Too many funerals are spiritual train wrecks that expose a poverty of community, one that needs to be nurtured and nourished long before the final trumpet sounds.