By Br. Nathan Linton, OFM, Cap.
Hello, everyone! It feels strange for me to write my monthly reflection instead of filming it. The truth is, I have already filmed and edited the video, but I can’t submit it due to the slow internet speeds. You see, I’m currently on my summer ministry experience in Montana where our friars serve in parishes and Catholic schools across the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. While I’m loving my time here, partially because it is so rural, it means slowing down a bit when it comes to both streaming and uploading videos.
With that said I want to talk about a fairly serious topic this month: death. I know that it sounds quite morbid, but bear with me. During my time here in Montana I have had the opportunity to get to know a little bit more about the Crow and Cheyenne cultures. I have even been able to spend time with various families and to join in some of their celebrations. Yet, of all of my experiences, I was struck most by the funeral of a young man from Birney, MT. It wasn’t so much the tragedy of his death that struck me but the atmosphere in which the wake and funeral were conducted.
It seemed so different from what I have experienced in the Midwest. We are accustomed to having the wake in a well-decorated room with countless floral arrangements surrounding the casket which may be either open or closed. When we arrive at the grave site, the grave is already dug and lined with artificial turf so that we can’t see a single patch of land without grass. The casket is placed on a bier and is gently lowered into the ground, oftentimes after the family has left. When we glimpse at the obituaries, it seems that no one wants to talk about funerals or burials because it seems too morbid, too final, so we see more and more ‘celebrations of life’ in an attempt to soften the harshness of it all.
What I experienced in Birney was much different. The wake was held in the community center and did not begin at a specific time; but when everyone who needed to be present was there. They prayed for their loved one and painted his face with the traditional markings of the Cheyenne people so that he might be recognized by their ancestors as one of their own. The funeral was simple and again began when everyone was present. During the final commendation, a traditional journey song was sung to accompany his soul to God.
The burial itself was the most striking for me. There was a large, crudely dug hole in the ground and a pile of dirt a few feet away. There was no machine to gently lower the casket. Rather, there were six white ropes which were slipped through the handles of the casket with a pall bearer holding each end. Two men jumped into the grave and helped to guide the casket to its final resting place. After the men climbed back up, the ropes were removed, and the Rite of Committal was said; two shovels were presented to the people, and one by one they threw dirt into the grave covering the top of the cedar casket. Finally, the backhoe was fired up and moved the rest of the dirt to fill the grave. It was a very hands-on experience. While the funeral director was present, much of the work was done by family members and friends. This was a people who were not strangers to death. They did not try to soften its devastating blow but embraced its reality and found peace when all was said and done.
I could not help but be moved by such an event. I began reflecting on what I saw. I took this to prayer and was reminded of our great Christian tradition of reflecting on our own deaths. A tradition which is summarized by the term memento mori: “remember death.” This is an important part of my own spirituality and has a strong presence in our Capuchin and Franciscan traditions. Many of our saints, including St. Francis, are depicted either holding a skull, looking at one, or even having one on their desk. One of our churches in Rome, Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, is famous world-over for its crypts decorated entirely with the bones of Capuchin friars (see the above photo). As you walk into the crypts, you pass a sign which reads, “What you are, we once were. What we are, you will become.”
The purpose of these crypts, and indeed this post, is not meant to be depressing or macabre. Rather, it is meant to show the passing glory of the world, a gentle reminder that this is not the end for which we are living. While God has created the earth and all that she contains, it is not perfect until we are truly united with God. Through remembering and reflecting upon our own death we begin to realize that there is a sort of haste that is needed to prepare for what is to come. Memento mori invites us to seriously look at our lives and to see what needs to be rooted out, what needs to be done. It encourages us to place God, the giver of life, at the center of all that we do.
St. Francis of Assisi saw all of creation, including death, as a means of understanding and drawing closer to God. He wrote a beautiful poem called the “Canticle of the Creatures” in which he spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon and of how each gives praise to God through their mere existence. As St. Francis lay dying, he wrote the final stanza of this poem:
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Through his reflection on his own death, Francis saw that he needed to die to sin, to correct his way of life, to strive to live for eternity, and to do the will of the Father in all things. As he continued this prayer, he no longer saw death as something to be concerned about or afraid of. He saw death as a sister to embrace, as the one who would take him home to the Father. In our Capuchin cemetery in Mt. Calvary, WI, there is a statue of Sister Death created by our friar Br. Michael Gaffney. In the statue a friar reclines in Sister Death’s arms with a look of both exhaustion and peace on his face. Sister Death embraces her brother and rests her head on his, comforting him in this transition.
May we always strive to center our lives on Christ so that when our time comes, we may be found doing the will of God and may embrace Sister Death as a friend who brings us closer to our heavenly homeland.
Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.