Reviving the True Meaning of Death


“Every moment of our lives we stand on the brink of eternity.” – Dom Lorenzo Scupolli

There are many precious traditions in the Sacred Liturgy that almost entirely disappeared after the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council. We realize that our Liturgy becomes more and more anthropocentric instead of theocentric. This protestanized liturgy is accompanied by a distortion of Church’s teaching as well. In a context of liturgy for the dead, there is an attempt to obscure the real meaning of death by the avoidance of using the traditional black vestments. Meanwhile, General Instruction of the Roman Missal states that:

Violet or purple is used in Advent and Lent. It may also be worn in Offices and Masses for the Dead (cf. below).

Besides violet, white or black vestments may be worn at funeral services and at other Offices and Masses for the Dead in the dioceses of the United States of America.

It is unclear why white vestments may be worn at funeral Mass or Masses for the Dead, since the traditional usage for those occasions before the Second Vatican Council was to use black vestments. It seems improper to wear violet or white vestments in Masses for the dead because violet is a color for conversion and penitence, hence its focus is on a living person. White is a color of glory and joy, and thus not suitable for sorrow. As the Mass for the dead focuses on the faithful departed, it is theologically more appropriate to wear black vestments. Traditionally, black represents the mourning for the deceased, the somberness of the tomb and the sorrow of death (cf. Catholic Encyclopedia: Liturgical Colors). We may understand these three aspects of our human struggle with death as follows:

The mourning for the deceasedOur natural response when we are separated from our beloved is grieving. Mourning and grieving are part of being human. Jesus Christ himself wept with Martha and Mary when he heard about Lazarus’s death (cf. John 11: 30-35). This separation is the time to experience sadness and loss, and there is nothing wrong with it. It has a sorrowful aspect, but this situation does not express hopelessness and despair. On the contrary, it is the right occasion for imploring divine mercy. We can show our love to the poor souls by praying for their release; they in turn will pray for us here on earth after they finish their purification in the purgatory.

The somberness of the tombWhen we visit a cemetery to pray for the soul who had departed into eternity, we remember good memories about him. We recall something that is good, true and beautiful which they had done for us while he lived. We are grateful because everything that is good from him is God’s gift for us. But at the same time, his grave becomes a reminder for us that we will return to dust (Gen 3:19). Someday, we will find ourselves approaching the end of our lives.

The sorrow of deathDeath can be seen as an act performed by man. Since man is a pilgrim who lives in a temporary tent on this earth (cf. 2 Cor 5:10), his last end is to achieve everlasting happiness with God. His life is a perpetual struggle against the power of evil one who wants to drag us down to hell (cf. Eph 6:12). That is why we must be sober and watchful (1 Ptr 5:8) because death comes like a thief in the night (1 Thes 5:2). Even in agony, we will not escape from the assaults of the devil, namely the temptation against faith, the assault of despair, thoughts of vainglory, and various illusions by the devil, as explained by Dom Lorenzo Scupolli in The Spiritual Combat.

It is essential to remember that Catholic Church teaches us about the grace of a happy death, which means dying in a state of grace. This grace is closely associated with the gift of perseverance. Because it cannot be obtained by our own merit, we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). We need to remind our Lord about his promise (Mat 7:7), that if we ask humbly what is necessary for our salvation, it will certainly be given to us.

What should we do to prepare the hour of our death? The answer leads us to basic traditional practices: daily examination of conscience, frequent reception of the sacrament of Reconciliation and Eucharist, praying unceasingly, doing penance, cultivating virtue and rooting out vice. For our time spent in this world is continual warfare against the powers of darkness, so we should have a strategy to enter this battlefield. I have already mentioned [easyazon_link asin=”0895551527″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”onep073-20″]The Spiritual Combat: and a Treatise on Peace of Soul by Dom Lorenzo Scupolli [/easyazon_link] – one of the spiritual classics – which is highly recommended for this purpose because it instructs us how to win the spiritual war.

There are many who associate death with fear of the unknown. They believe that this fear will lead them into melancholy and despair, therefore it is better not to speak and think about it at all. Some people even say that they only want to enjoy life. They are convinced that they still have much time to spend here, and death is still far away. Their whole existence is focused to a temporal man-made paradise. They are attached to the pleasures of this world, forgetting that there is a longing in their heart that will not be satisfied by created things. In the end, they conclude that it is meaningless to contemplate about death, because eternity is beyond our comprehension.

Dom Scupolli refuted that erroneous thinking. In his book, he elaborated the benefits of contemplating death:

Twelve Advantages to Be Derived From the Contemplation of Death

  1. Contemplation of death enables us to judge properly and prevents our being imposed upon in all affairs. With nothing we came into this world, and with nothing shall we leave it. Why then should we consume our very lives in the accumulation of riches? No one is to accompany us out of this world, why then are we so fond of creatures? The stench and corruption of the grave in which the pampered body is the prey of the lowest vermin show us the folly of carnal pleasures. In our narrow cell beneath the earth among the meanest things of creation, when our very blanket of soil may be trampled upon by the meanest beggar, then we shall be freed of the vanity of seeking distinction and preference over others.

  2. It is our best instructor through life, laying down but one simple rule, which is the direction of all our acts to one last end. This consideration drives away all the petty troubles which punctuate this life with unfailing regularity: it steadies us on the course and sustains us on the journey.

  3. It reaches us to know ourselves, one of the essential points of true wisdom.

  4. It teaches us to despise all that this world can offer, and it is the solace of all true servants of God

  5. It is like ice, and helps to chill and deaden the fire of concupiscence; it is a bridle which curbs our sensual appetites.

  6. It is a continual source of humiliation, a specific remedy against pride and vanity.

  7. It is an excellent preservative against sin. “In all thy works be mindful of thy last end, and thou salt never sin.” (Eccl 7:40)

  8. It brings exasperated minds back to peace and reconciliation. Whoever considers seriously that a certain and unavoidable death will one day bring him before the Judge Who shows no mercy but to those who show mercy to others, he will easily induced to forgive.

  9. It is an antidote against the pleasures and vanities of the world. Thus the prince who once placed a jester in a crazy chair over a large fire told him very justly, seeing the jester’s uneasiness, that life should be considered like a defective chair which at any hour, at any moment, might fall to pieces; and the fire beneath the prince represented as the fires of Hell which everyone should hold in dread.

  10. It teaches us a provident economy with regard to our salvation, by setting before our eyes the transitory character of this life, and the necessity of laying up a treasure of good works while it is in our power to do so.

  11. It induces us to embrace penances with a cheerful spirit.

  12. It encourages us to persevere in the way of penance with unshakable firmness.

Unfortunately, many people no longer acknowledge Christ as the Divine Judge. It seems that to modern man, death is only an encounter between us and Christ as a Savior. However, when our soul is separated from the body, there is nothing left in us except our own conscience. We will be naked before the eyes of the Sovereign Judge, stripped of our own mask.

Death is also a moment when we meet Christ as our Judge, and then we must render an account of our life. He will judge us according to our faith and works, whether we are going to heaven, hell or purgatory, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

1021 Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ. The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith. The parable of the poor man Lazarus and the words of Christ on the cross to the good thief, as well as other New Testament texts speak of a final destiny of the soul–a destiny which can be different for some and for others.

1022 Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven-through a purification or immediately, — or immediate and everlasting damnation.

A healthy sense of fear must be restored through the horror of death, so that it inspires us to sanctify ourselves while we had a time to do so. But, what is so horrible about death? I think it is described vividly by Ven. Louis of Granada:

“Reflect, then, on the sentiments that will be yours when you will stand before the tribunal of God, with no defenders but your good works, with no companion but your own conscience. And if then you will not be able to satisfy your Judge, who will give expression to the bitterness of your anguish? For the question at issue is not a fleeting temporal life, but an eternity of happiness or an eternity of misery. Whither will you turn? What protection will you seek? Your tears will be powerless to soften your Judge; the time for repentance will be past. Little will honors, dignities, and wealth avail you, for “Riches,” says the Wise Man, “shall not profit in the day of vengeance, but justice shall deliver a man from death.” (Prov. 11:4).

The unhappy soul can only exclaim with the prophet, “The sorrows of death have encompassed me, and the perils of hell have found me.” (Ps. 114:3). Unhappy wretch! How swiftly this hour has come upon me! What does it now avail me that I had friends, or honors, or dignities or wealth? All that I can now claim is a few feet of earth and a windings-sheet. My wealth which I hoarded I must leave to be squandered by others, while the sins of injustice which I here committed will pursue me into the next world and there condemn me to eternal torments. Of all my guilty pleasures the sting of remorse alone remains. Why have I made no preparation for this hour? Why was I deaf to the salutary warnings I received? “Why have I hated instruction, and my heart consented not to reproofs, and have not heard the voice of them that taught me, and have not inclined my ear to my masters?” (Prov. 5:12-13).”

The Sinner’s Guide by Venerable Louis of Granada, OP.

The feelings of loneliness and helplessness are the most terrible thing in our personal judgement day. In this very moment, divine justice shall be pronounced to us: the just shall be rewarded with eternal glory, and the wicked shall suffer everlasting torment in hell. There is no going back; there shall be no penance to atone our sins in the temporal life.

This fear should not loosen our hope in God. In the final analysis, let us look at the scene of Calvary, when Jesus said to the good thief: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Even when we are straying away completely from God, we will never be abandoned by the Lord. The door for conversion of heart is always opened, as long as we do not fall into the state of final impenitence, which is a refusal to be convicted of sins, to repent and accept forgiveness.

We must also remember Jesus’ words: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:1-2). We can be certain that there is a heavenly room for us, those Catholics who pursue holiness. We must aspire to lay up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal (Mt 6:20). And one of the motives to persevere for our salvation is by contemplating death and the particular judgement.

So, dear priests, we beg you: please start wearing black vestments at funerals and preaching about the Four Last Things because for this reason you are ordained: to work for the salvation of souls.

“If Christians listened to no sermon other than that on the judgement of God, it would be enough to make them observe the gospel and lead a holy life of grace.” – St. Augustine

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