Death is inevitable. For the bulk of human history, this has been a universally acknowledged and widely emphasized truism. Victorious Roman generals, as they paraded through the city in triumph, would be accompanied by someone whose job it was to repeatedly whisper to them, “remember that you will die.” The medieval Japanese Tale of the Heike opens with the observation that “[t]he arrogant do not long endure; they are as a spring night’s dream. The mighty perish in the end; they are like dust before the wind” (my translation). James Joyce’s “The Dead” features a discussion about a group of monks who sleep in their own coffins “to remind them of their last end.” Even the economist John Maynard Keynes, when challenged to address potential long-term negative consequences of constant state intervention in the economy, notoriously said that “in the long term, we’re all dead.”
Today, however, the natural human fear of death has mutated into a widespread desire to conquer or abolish human mortality. This desire appears most obviously in movements like transhumanism and cryogenics, but also manifests in the form of pop-cultural sensibilities. As Pope Francis says in Christus Vivit, one such sensibility “exploits the image of the young” (§79) in venerating youth and denigrating the old. Often, the human worth of the old, sick, and dying is denigrated through this widespread discomfort with mortality. This discomfort is something that we Catholics must try our best to avoid.
Traditionally, the great reminder of our mortality in the liturgical year comes on Ash Wednesday. However, Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day—what a goth-minded Catholic friend of mine calls the “Triduum of the Dead”—also remind us of those who have gone before, and in some sense remind us of our own ultimate fate as well. These three days can serve us as reminders of the four last things.
I love All Souls’ Day precisely because I believe the effort to avoid our mortality is wrongheaded and damaging to our ability to accept God’s wishes for us. A traditionalist-leaning parish near me retains the old-fashioned practice of having an empty coffin in the nave for All Souls’; I love this custom and have gone to this parish for All Souls’ for several years running. This year, I will be be praying for the souls in purgatory in the graveyard next to my house. I will also spend time contemplating my own ultimate fate and those of my loved ones.
Few of my friends and family expect to go straight to heaven when they die; almost all of them expect to “do time” in what a traditional hymn calls “purgatory’s cleansing fires.” I don’t think they’re unusual among serious Catholics in this. All Souls’ is in some ways more “relatable” than All Saints’. For many people it’s difficult to believe that they will be swept to heaven in honor and glory immediately upon their death. Oftentimes, it’s much easier to believe that, through struggle and self-purification, you’ll make it there in the end.
I invite all readers of this brief reflection to join me in keeping All Souls’ Day. Let’s pray for the dead, contemplate our morality, and confirm ourselves in Christian hope for all those who are bound for heaven but are not there quite yet.
Image: All Souls’ Day at a cemetery in Dhaka, Bangladesh. From Wikimedia Commons.
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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.