Death And Stuff Like That

Growing up as the son of Italian immigrants, I assumed people everywhere responded to death the same way we did. According to my parents, in the old days women wore black for long periods of mourning, wakes lasted days and a huge meal followed the Requiem Mass. Back in the old country, graves were not bought but rented for ten years, after which the bones were collected and stored in the parish basement. I was surprised that other nationalities seldom even heard of "jumpers" : mourners who fling themselves into an open grave. Most modern funerals seem boring and bland by comparison : except perhaps for the famous jazz send-offs of New Orleans.

Overseas, death is not so easily dismissed. A traditional Korean wake means just that: mourners stay awake until the burial three or more days later. With few mortuaries, relatives wash and dress the body and take turns wailing in the house; others, especially men, pass the time outside playing cards and drinking under a canopy. Embalming or using anything other than a wooden coffin strikes Koreans as unnatural. In fact, grave diggers there sprinkle lime on the coffin to insure its quick return to the earth.

Nepal has the most fascinating, if not bizarre, practice. With arable land at a premium, Nepalese cannot afford the luxury of cemeteries. Instead, the remains of their loved ones are prepared and placed on a funeral tower for the winged spirits (vultures) to come and carry off to the heavens.

From the mundane to the macabre, humans have dealt with death in a variety of ways. Foreknowledge of our ultimate and inevitable demise distinguishes our species. Humans cultivated religion and philosophy to grapple with the meaning of life in the ever-present shadow of death. For millennia, tyrants have used the fear of death to intimidate and control people. The Roman Empire was no different, except for one day in A.D.33 when it played its death card once too often. Sweating blood, Jesus nonetheless faced death head on. By doing so he set us free : not from physical death but from the far more paralyzing fear of death which prevents us from living fully and freely.

Death will always remain the most terrible and frightening of mysteries for which there is no easy answer and from which there is no escape. Customs, ceremonies and rituals around the world attest to its dominant place in the human psyche. As people of faith in the crucified and Risen Jesus, we can also bless death as "our sister" as Saint Francis of Assisi did. We see it as a natural though scary part of creation and trust in the even greater mystery of love and life we receive from the hand of God.

Share:Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestEmail this to someonePrint this page