I’m not planning on dying any time soon. I’m nearly 53 years old, and life expectancy statistics tell me that I have at least another 20 to 25 years left on this Earth. And research shows that people of faith tend to be healthier and live longer than those who don’t — about seven years longer, in fact, according to one study. That’s not the reason why I believe, but it is a factor in my favor.
But just in case things don’t work out that way, there’s one temporal affair I’d like to set in order right now. It involves my interment rites.
Simply put, I don’t want to be canonized at my own wake or funeral Mass.
I’m putting it in writing now — no milquetoast platitudes about how “he’s in Heaven now” or “he’s in a better place.” This is a person’s soul we’re talking about — namely, mine — and it is not the time for such fluffy sentimentalities. This “eternal spiritual destination” stuff is far too serious business for that.
Nothing to the effect of “he’s in Heaven now” is to be said at my wake service; during the homily or any other part of the funeral; at any social gathering prior to my funeral or after it; or at any other time in the days, weeks, months, years, or even decades following my death. Unless there are miracles occurring that are clearly and undeniably occurring due to my intercession, or unless I undoubtedly died a martyr for the Faith, nobody knows that I’m Heaven.
Well-meaning but hasty thoughts about me being in Heaven are not going to help my soul in the slightest. Instead, I’m asking now — and will repeat this plea as many times as I have to, until I die — that everyone who remembers me assume that I am in Purgatory.
And that means I will need prayers, and lots of them — not pronouncements of canonization, including ones that are meant to make me wife feel better, assuming that I “check out” before she does.
It’s a grave mistake to automatically assume that someone who’s died is definitely in Heaven now. That may seem unkind or heartless, but in fact, it’s uncharitable to assume that someone is already “set” eternally and that he doesn’t need our prayers anymore. That’s what “canonizing” someone by saying “he’s in Heaven” or “he’s in a better place” amounts to. It’s an act of concluding that we don’t need to pray for him.
What is Purgatory? The Catechism (no. 1030) explains it thus: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” It goes on to say that Purgatory’s purpose is the “final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1031).
Every soul in Purgatory will be admitted to Heaven eventually — with the help of us Catholics here on Earth, which is why the Church has always stressed “the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture” and calls for “almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (CCC 1032).
Is praying for the dead still a priority in modern Catholicism? Do we Catholics as a group even believe very strongly, or at all, in Purgatory anymore? The answer to both questions seems to be “not really,” given the frequent habit of “canonizing” those who have died at their own funeral Masses, with the aforementioned “he is in Heaven now” declarations and the constant “better place” references.
Do we think it’s just too unpleasant for many of us to imagine that our relatives, friends, and loved ones are suffering in Purgatory? We shouldn’t think that way; instead, we should look at the bright side. Purgatory isn’t a pleasant place, but it sure beats being in Hell — which is not only far more unpleasant, but is, unlike Purgatory, also eternal. And the suffering that exists in Purgatory has a purifying point to it, one from which God draws goodness and beauty. Not to mention our salvation.
One priest, in a funeral homily, analogized Purgatory to mining for precious metals. Only with a furnace can gold or diamonds be separated from the useless ore in which they’re found so that they can be made perfect and pure. Without the furnace, the metals couldn’t be made precious; likewise, without Purgatory, it can be reasonably argued that few of our souls could be admitted to Heaven, where Scripture tells us nothing unclean is allowed (Revelation 21:27).
Think about it: if we die with no mortal sins on our souls, and even if we’ve made the best confession possible right before death, how many of us would be so free from the effects of or attachments to sin that our souls would meet Revelation 21:27’s requirements? It’s reasonable to believe that not many of us would qualify. Even the non-Catholic 18th-century literary luminary Samuel Johnson, “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history,” saw this: asked about the Catholic belief in Purgatory, Johnson said, “It is a very harmless doctrine. They [Catholics] are of opinion that the generality of mankind are neither so obstinately wicked as to deserve everlasting punishment, nor so good as to merit being admitted into the society of blessed spirits; and therefore that God is graciously pleased to allow of a middle state, where they may be purified by certain degrees of suffering.”
So there it is — Purgatory, not Heaven, is what we should be thinking about first when someone we know passes away, even a close family member or friend, because there’s every good chance that his soul will be in need of purification there. Just as we should not implode an old building until we know absolutely that no one is inside, we should err on the side of caution when we are not sure that someone who has died is in Heaven. Souls in Heaven don’t need our prayers, but those in Purgatory do, and that’s where we must presume a departed soul is — again, absent a clear-cut case of martyrdom for the Faith or miracles due to the person’s intercession.
So when I die, please pray for me — don’t canonize me. Do I hope to go straight to Heaven after my time on Earth runs out? Of course I do, but unless they know for sure that I have, I hope people don’t bet on it. That’s why I offer each of the individual prayers in my rosary for one soul in Purgatory. I ask that others pay it forward after I die — or in this case, maybe I should say pay it backward — by assuming the very real possibility of my being in Purgatory, and thus praying for my soul’s release into the eternal glory of God’s Presence.
Ken Foye is an American Catholic living abroad, teaching English writing, reading, presentation, discussion, and conversation classes at a four-year university in northern Japan. He is an Oblate of St. Benedict and is married to a Japanese convert to Catholicism. Among his academic research interests is the inclusion of faith and religion discussions in the English language classroom.