November is a good tie—after Halloween, All Saints, All Souls, and with another presidential election staring us in the face—to think about death.
Like many people, I first met death when relatives died, for me, my great-grandparents, whom I was lucky enough to know for a few years.
In the late 1950s, people often still died at home. I watched the undertakers carrying my great-grandmother’s corpse, in a black case, down the steps of her house. I was five or six, and though the memory is still clear, it did not make much of an emotional impression on me.
Death seemed a lot more natural then.
That may have been because most of us got a fuller introduction to death at the hands of the Church. In parochial school, we routinely talked about and prepared for it without any morbidness. Most non-Catholics, and even many Catholics who did not go through the old system, almost always misunderstand this. Death hardly seemed like being abducted by aliens; so many great people and relatives were on the other side. We took the communion of saints to be at least as real a community as the parish Holy Name Society.
You might wonder whether in heaven they had American and National leagues or if “Hit Parade” was shown weekly. But like some primitive tribe, we did not think the distance between this world and the spirit world was all that great.
By the time I was eight or nine, death had taken on another entirely new dimension: It became a serious source of income. Let me explain briefly. In the old parochial school, the smarter students earned some real privileges. If, for instance, you could memorize the Latin Mass, you could be an altar boy. And if you were an altar boy, you could also serve at funerals.
Now that might not seem a privilege for those who have never considered the matter fully. But there are hidden graces in everything.
Funerals were mostly held during the week (weddings, a topic for another day, were on Saturdays; and Sundays were pretty much off-limits for both weddings and funerals). So if you were an altar boy and the nuns thought you were doing well enough in class to skip a few hours here and there, you could get whole mornings off.
Admittedly, there was the unpleasantness of the body at the wake the night before and the people crying both there and in church. But there were also golden mornings out of school and, on rare occasions, even a trip to the cemetery that might take until after lunch. When you add to that all the old accouterments—the heavy candles, the messing around with lighting the charcoal for the thurible, and the actual incense smoke you sometimes got to flick around the church— it may not have been Huck Finn and Jim floating down the Mississippi on a raft, but it had a lot of red-blooded-boy stuff in it all the same.
Then there were the financial rewards. I don’t know whether the practice exists any longer, but sub regno Tridentino altar boys were paid $3 to $5 per funeral. And the dollar hadn’t yet become a Latin American currency. Usually, a pallbearer or family member came into the sacristy after Mass and bluntly pressed a roll of singles into the head altar boy’s hand for division among the crew. All for being excused from school and reeling off some Latin phrases. A couple of mornings like that over a two-week period and you could live high relative to your classmates.
It’s a good thing we didn’t know the phrase at the time or we might have been inclined to the frequent, callous, and probably blasphemous repetition of: “O death where is thy sting!”
I do not mean to be flippant about other peoples’ sorrows. In fact, I never thought funerals anything other than a swelled-heart affair. Once, as we were facing the mourners for the final prayers before the casket was wheeled out of the church, I felt so full of the sadness of the whole thing that I sighed deeply and blew out the lighted candle in my hands. Everyone was surprised, but also kind of relieved to be brought back to Earth by this gaffe. Even the old monsignor, whom I would never accuse of being soft on altar-boy antics, just gave me a look of weary understanding.
But I sometimes wonder, seeing my own children, if our biggest loss since we became a mostly suburban Church is not this far-from-morbid, ancient awareness of the proximity of life and death. Many of us hardly even know death exists, a state far less healthy than psychologists think. Memento mori, it’s worth remembering, is not solely a matter of how to die but, more importantly, how to live.