Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Resurrecting the Cult of the Dead

It is not uncommon to hear someone say that before the liturgical changes of the 1960's, the atmosphere at Catholic funerals was intensely negative. It's also common to hear that votive Masses for the Dead were overused and said practically every day on which they were allowed. While I don't disagree with all of these observations, I think it's important to point out that the cult of the dead in the Catholic tradition is rich and beautiful and full of hope. It faces the reality of grief, but it also puts great hope in the Resurrection. Compare, for instance, the Domine Jesu Christe and the In Paradisum--or the Epistle ("Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord") with the Dies Irae (in the Traditional Mass, at least). It needs to be said, too, that the chant melodies for the Requiem Mass are among the most beautiful in the repertoire.

There's little doubt in my mind that many (Jansenists, perhaps?) did much to make the cult of the dead as gloomy as possible, and that this is why the traditional funeral liturgy (black vestments, for instance) is ignored in most places. With little more than three weeks to go before All Souls Day, it seems like an opportune time to reconsider how to handle the tragedy of death in a becoming Christian fashion.

We need not dwell on the fact that most Catholic funerals today are canonization celebrations. The question is, How do we recover the rich cult of the dead that belongs to us? It seems to me that discourse on the Four Last Things (death, judgment, heaven, hell) needs to ensue. Most of the time, three of those four topics are completely ignored by homilists, not only at funerals, but throughout the year. Without a proper grasp of these issues, no need will be felt to change the way we celebrate funerals--nor will any attempt at changing the ars celebrandi be understood without a backbone built through catechesis.

But where do we begin liturgically, when it is time for that? Perhaps the parish All Souls Day commemoration is the place to start. If a priest were abruptly to begin wearing black or even purple at funerals, this might cause all manner of confusion, hysteria, hurt, etc. Even a young fogey like me can admit that this is something to be avoided. But what about having an All Souls Mass using purple or black vestments, and explaining the reason for their use? What about adding at least some of the traditional chants to this liturgy? This would be a magnificent improvement over the prayer services that many parishes have which still leave everyone with the impression that grandma died and went straight to heaven.

One of the customs which seems like it ought to be resumed immediately is the week's, month's and year's mind. This is the saying of Masses--or at least prayers--one week, one month, and one year after the date of death of a loved one. Some Catholics have tried to keep this going by having Masses said for people on the anniversary of their death. Some pastors do everything they can to accommodate (though there are limits, to be sure); others are needlessly uncooperative. Too often I have seen people seeking out a Mass card treated as nothing more than a nuisance, which is too bad, given the work of mercy which they are trying to undertake.

The commemoration of these milestone dates is one way we can encourage people to take up again the practice of praying for the dead, a practice that does not seem to be as important to many people as it once was. Another element that can be added (and is already done in many places) is a petition for the dead in the General Intercessions. Prayers can also be added at other times, such as at dinner. It must be stressed that praying for the dead is about hope and about love. It is not to say that Mr. So-and-so went to hell, which is nonsensical anyway, since those in hell are beyond hope. And the teaching on purgatory needs to be re-emphasized. All of this will be most effective if it is taught not in some gloomy spirit but rather with the idea that when we pray for the dead, we are undertaking a work of mercy that, among other things, expresses Christian love for them.

Professor Eamon Duffy has written beautifully about the cult of the dead in 16th century England in his book The Stripping of the Altars. Also, Fr. Jonathan Robinson has written about some of the modern errors which have contributed to the deterioration of the cult of the dead in the present age in his book The Mass and Modernity. I encourage you all to read both of these books.

Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: