She was only 24 years old when she fell asleep in the Lord—a tragic swimming accident in late September. Bright, kind, and beautiful, she had recently graduated from a Catholic college in California and was studying nursing at a university in Ohio.
When our community heard what happened, we were shaken to lose such a soul, such a smile, so suddenly. We banded together around the family—around her father and mother and four brothers—and together, we turned our thoughts to giving this mourned young woman we had known since she was a little girl a beautiful Catholic funeral.
The school where I teach is where her father taught for twelve years and where her four brothers attended. She had been a girl on these grounds and spent many happy times here in the life surrounding the school, from celebrating Mass, banquets on saints’ feast days, soccer games, family barbecues, graduations, and plays. Even though it is a boys’ school, she used to say that she felt it was her high school and that the musical culture of the place affected her deeply.
There is an old orphanage cemetery set in a light, lovely wood in a back corner of the campus, and when we asked her parents if they would like to lay their daughter to rest there, the funeral preparations were soon underway.
In the woodshop, the school carpenter began to make a coffin with oak freely given for the sad occasion by a local tradesman who knew the family. The father and brothers worked alongside, building that casket for their little girl and little sister, wiping tears from the wood as they sawed and sanded with care, while another carved a Celtic cross in cherry to mount the face of the lid.
Friends and former students from across the country began to arrive to help and support the family. A young man who employed her brothers as landscapers during the summer brought some light equipment to the gravesite and opened the brown earth with deep, straight sides under the rusty leaves.
Wives and daughters prepared dishes and vases and linens, bought flowers and wine, and planned a meal for the hundreds who would come. Students prepared the grounds, set reception tables and chairs in a shady place on the lawn, and made the old cemetery tidy and ready. All the while, everyone prayed.
At the wake, the family laid the body, dressed in white, within the beautiful casket, and her mother wrapped it in a quilt an aunt had made years ago. The priest kissed her forehead and closed the lid. Then the father handed out six oaken pegs to his wife and four sons; and with a rawhide mallet, each drove a peg into a hole prepared for that purpose, with a finality that was breathtaking and heartbreaking to all present.
The church was full for the Requiem Mass. The students of the school chanted the Dies Irae from the loft. The priest delivered a moving homily from the altar, saying:
She is the bride of Christ: chosen from all as she stands before her Lord and Savior.… When Jesus Christ asks her, “what have you done in your short life to merit the kingdom of heaven of my Father?” She will answer, “I have seen the son of Man and I believe in Him: I have eaten His Sacred Body and drunk His Precious Blood.” This is the proof, the true witness she can give.
When the hearse arrived at the school, her brothers removed the casket and marched slowly up a sunny hill where waited, in solemn contrast against the clear sky, a white antique carriage with black drapery drawn by two high-stepping white horses in mourning regalia. The bell tolled sadly in the cupola on high as the long procession to the cemetery began through fields of nodding goldenrod.
The choir sang as they walked behind the casket and the carriage. The horses’ harnesses jingled. The altar boys swung thuribles and held candles ahead of five priests in cassocks, surplices, and birettas, following the hearse through the damp green grass and leading hundreds clothed in black. A piper standing back in the woods began playing a wailing pibroch as they passed, and it echoed on the mountainside.
At the mouth of the cemetery, the pall bearers bore the coffin through a grove and over the grave. After prayers, incense, holy water, and a Latin hymn to Our Lady, they lowered it with straps out of sight until that day when she is called forth like Lazarus. The priest tossed in a lily and a handful of earth that landed heavily on the wood.
Then the father, with a spade in his hands and weeping freely, began to bury his daughter. His sons joined him. And as they and others doffed their jackets and filled the grave, the mourners sang. They sang “The Old Churchyard,” “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go,” “Annie Laurie,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “The Parting Glass,” and song after song as the grave was made and the dead was buried.
Then there followed a merry congregation of friends who, in the company of each other and Death, had fresh cause to rejoice in life and love and fellowship. Food and drink were shared. Memories exchanged. Old acquaintances reunited. Children played and laughed on the hillside, spoiling their Sunday best. Men smoked cigars and told stories. Women walked barefoot and sat in the sun.
Finally, the father stood up in a ring of the crowd and, with a smile and tears in his eyes, thanked everyone for coming to his daughter’s wedding day. And so it was, in a way.
This was a funeral not simply done well, but rightly. What an anomaly it is in this antiseptic age, even though it is natural. Death is not really a part of life anymore, not as it should be. Somewhere in the middle of death-denial and death-despair lies the real human experience of death: the acknowledgment of what death must be and what it must bring.
Do we truly bury the dead, as the corporal work of mercy commands? It is a good question. And one that is worth asking in a society so cut off from the rites and realities of death, even as people struggle with the wages of sin, so often in mute denial or raging submission of some unbearable, unpardonable fact.
Please pray for the repose of the soul of that young lady and for the healing of her brave and good family. Remember her and all the faithful departed during this season of holy remembrance. Such prayers are up to us to offer, and we have much to do to get ourselves to heaven by doing what we can to get others there ahead of us.
No matter how self-destructive the world’s bent, people still want to live forever, just as the ancients did. That desire is the basis of all philosophy and theology. But death must play the right part in that desire for eternal life if it is to be fulfilled. Let us pray for all souls.