The life of a Jesuit is heavily immersed into doing different kinds of ministries, and it is of no surprise that these often become conversation topics. A few nights ago, the topic of funerals came up in our dinner conversation. We talked about how people have preferences for their funeral plans: some cultures have public viewings like wakes, some even having them in their own homes. Others opt to have a public prayer service. A fellow Jesuit remarked that it is becoming more and more common for some to decide on foregoing a funeral altogether. At times, it is due to financial issues; but other times, it seems as if people do not want others to see how awful they look after they die. It is as if they prefer to visually remain in others' memories the best way possible.
While this sentiment is not surprising, I also find it a bit perplexing. In addition to unmasking our own insecurities, it feels quite artificial and superficial to decide how we are to be remembered by others, especially visually. There is something deeply humbling and human about the mark of death on the human body. It strongly conveys a reality that one has died, and there is no dodging this realization. No amount of intellectualizing or spiritualising will help diminish this literally “cold and hard fact”. While it might theoretically give a dying person some artificial comfort that his deteriorating face would not be put on display, it gives neither his family or his friends the comfort that he has actually died.
To be sure, encountering a corpse is not a pleasant experience. But as sad as it is, it is an essential step for one's family and friends to begin the grieving process. In extraordinary circumstances, commemorating the site of death or a personal article would do. In any case, this physical connection with the dead seems to be important. We can intellectually understand that someone has passed away, but this is not the only step. As incarnate beings we need a definite, physical sign to initiate closure. In other words, you may want to “save face” by not showing your face, but your loved ones need to see your face so that they can face the future on solid ground. There is an inevitable and healthy communal aspect of facing death and grieving. As strange as it sounds, it requires that we reflect on how we are to present ourselves as dead persons.
I used to romanticize about the possibility of “dying on the job” as a Jesuit; that way, I would not waste even one day of my time on earth. I would be labouring for the Lord literally until my last breath. But this year, a fellow Jesuit passed away unexpectedly “on the job”. He was a well-loved pastor at a parish in Toronto. It was incredible to see the impact of this death on the parish community. They were ill-prepared for it, and many found it difficult to accept and adapt to parish life after his departure. Obviously, my fellow Jesuit had no choice in determining how he was to die, but the amount of stress that it placed on others was extraordinary. It made me realize that a death is not personal but communal. Like our lives in their entirety, this process is not just about us; it necessarily involves others, whether we like it or not.
This reminds me of St. Thomas the apostle, the one who is known as the “doubting Thomas”. Where was he when Jesus died? It was not recorded in holy Scripture, but whether he was looking on during the Crucifixion or hiding his head between his knees in the Garden of Gethsemane, he wanted physical proof that Jesus had really died to convince him of the authenticity of the Resurrection. Thomas needed the nail marks and the wound on the side to know that death had arrived, and that death had also passed. Seen in this light, the need for us to have a physical connection with the dead does not appear as bizarre. It helps us begin our paschal journey so that we can look forward to the Light at the end of the tunnel. Death does not do us part, after all; it unites us through the communion of saints.