Director, Notre Dame Vision
Doctoral Student, Systematic Theology, University of Notre Dame
I once had a very dissatisfying experience at a funeral. While I do not consider myself the sort of person who typically seeks satisfaction at funerals, what was lacking in this one made me intuitively aware of what I desired by contrast.
I had just seen my grandfather a few weeks prior to his death. He was in the hospital and, in accordance with the directives of his living will, the feeding tubes had been removed. He was unable to speak and mostly unable to move, but it was clear that he knew when my brother and I walked into the room. I was the last one to leave his hospital room that night, staying behind to say goodbye and to whisper a prayer over him, tracing the Sign of the Cross on his forehead. It was the first time I had ever prayed with (or over) Louis DeLorenzo.
Upon his death on April 20, my wife and I made arrangements to fly out to New Jersey two days later for the funeral that weekend. With the rest of my family already in town, I was the last to arrive and, by that time, all the arrangements were in place. There was nothing for me to do but show up at the funeral parlor and walk into a predictably hideously wallpapered room filled with Italian-Americans from such diverse places as northern New Jersey and southern New York.
When it was time for the service to begin, a very pleasant older gentleman stood up in the front with a Bible in hand. When my aunt had called the Catholic parish in town to inquire about a funeral for my grandfather, she apparently met some resistance because he had not been an active parishioner. Rather than push in any way, she hung up the phone and called the people at the funeral home, who offered to find another minister to lead the service there.
He began with a reading from Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I lack. In green pastures he makes me lie down; to still waters he leads me; he restores my soul…
At the end of the Psalm, he closed his Bible and shared a little bit about Lou DeLorenzo. Having never met him personally, he recited the facts: he had been a Nutley firefighter for 37 years while also working as a carpenter. He married Dorothy in 1946 and they raised their two children—Nora and Leonard—in Nutley before moving to Chadwick Beach and retiring in Palm Harbor, Florida. They had four grandchildren. Lou liked to fish and loved to golf. This final bit of biographical information provided the launching point for the short sermon:
“And now Lou is in those green pastures we heard about in our reading. His green pastures are beautiful fairways and perfect greens, where every putt goes in.”
The genial minister went on for a minute longer, saying much of the same—that Lou was now looking down on us between holes, smiling the whole time. He closed with a brief prayer, and that was that.
Recalling this event now, it seems somewhat peaceful, even quaint. I still, however, feel much of the same sensation now as I did then: at one and the same time I want to both scream and plead. Have we really acknowledged the fact that this man—my granddaddy—has died? What hope do we have for him? Is it really just fairways and greens that he has to look forward to? Is that what we want for him? Is that who he was?
This minister meant no harm. Furthermore, I am not sure how many of the people in that room accepted this as a fitting end to Louis DeLorenzo’s life, or how many felt like I did that there was a significant deficiency in what we had just experienced. To my ears, my grandfather was represented as a thin caricature of himself, sent forth as a glossed-over figure for whom we were not beckoned to pray and on behalf of whom we were not trusted to hope. He seemed to have just breezily slipped away to another place, as if this life had been but a dream.
From my vantage point now—some seven years later—I am can better discern what exactly was so dissatisfying about that late April funeral service:
- First, the well-intentioned minister disregarded the most obvious, unavoidable fact of the whole engagement: Louis DeLorenzo had just died. He died. He was dead, not golfing. |
- Second, we were left without a challenge to hope. I cannot speak for the other people in that room, but I know that I still feel this oversight even now. It might have been precisely because we were collectively ignoring the fact that he was really dead that the real necessity of hope was not revealed.
- Third, the picture we were invited to take up—albeit based off of Psalm 23—did not lead us to cling to the Body of Christ. The brief sermon felt like one of those times when you are told that what you have lost, or the job you did not get, or the relationship that just ended was not all that terrible of a thing to lose anyway. It is tempting to try to believe that, but the fact of the matter is that the loss is real, it does hurt, and it actually was important. In this case, my grandfather was important and his loss was real. What I was most deeply looking for that day—along with others that gathered in that room—was something real to cling to, not pious wishes.
I have been to other funerals and memorial services since my grandfather’s, and some of these have resembled his in one way or another. Even so, my grandfather’s still strikes me raw to this day because the dissatisfaction was so keen, while the desire for hope and prayer was so great.
I think this desire requires some examination. What was I looking for? What was missing? As I ponder my desire, the three missing dimensions enumerated above—lacks that gave me such deep dissatisfaction—need to be explored in further detail: the seriousness of death, the significance of hope, and the silence of Christ. It is all too appropriate to make this attempt now, as the Church once again turns in prayer to God for the souls of all the faithful departed.
The Seriousness of Death
I looked at death with my grandfather once before his own death, five years earlier. It was the first and only time I saw him cry. Our family gathered at another funeral parlor, this time in Florida, to view my grandmother’s body for the last time before cremation. My youngest cousin and I at first refused to go in to the room to see her body lying in the cardboard coffin (she was frugal to the end!). I didn’t want to see her because I thought it wasn’t her. But it was. She was dead. She both was and was not her body. Whatever and whoever she was, she died. There lay the body of the woman we knew and loved, the woman who knew and loved us. Her body was the remnant of the life she had lived with and among us, but that life was now silent.
When I walked outside of the mortuary on a characteristically warm and rainy afternoon, I found my grandfather standing there by himself. He had just kissed the forehead of the woman who had been his wife for more than 50 years. He was sobbing. The proudest, most stubborn, most old-school man I have ever known was crying like a child in the rain. He had just confronted the utter end of life in the person he loved most. I put my arm around my uncharacteristically vulnerable grandfather and I felt his loss. Even at the end of a long and loving life, that loss was a tragedy.
My grandfather lived five years after his wife’s death, but his life was never the same. A good part of him died when his lips touched her lifeless forehead that last time. My father told me that he sometimes heard him crying softly in his bed at night. There was a hole in his life that neither pious thoughts nor shimmering wishes could fill. I am not sure that hole was meant to be filled.
As far as I know, my grandfather never attempted to explain where his beloved went after death. It would have certainly been comforting to imagine her having slipped out of the confines of this life into a better, happier place. The thought of her immediate bliss may have been a consolation to his grieving heart. There was a certain discipline and authenticity to the way he thought about her after death. Instead of trying to make her right for his own sake, he allowed himself to be wounded for love of her. He had been tied to her so deeply for so long that he couldn’t replace her with a thought or a wish about where or how she was now. Her life had been too important for that—she had been too important to him. It is not that he somehow failed to accept her death, but rather that he refused to allow her death to be any less serious than it really was. She was gone and that made a difference to him.
The Significance of Hope
It is hard, if not impossible, to give an account of exactly how someone has affected you. Not only am I unable to explain what my grandmother meant to my grandfather, but it is also difficult for me to explain what she meant to me. If I sat still long enough, I could conjure up countless memories of her: some that would cause me to chuckle, others that would frustrate me, others still that would perhaps leave me with tinges of regret, and many that would fill me with gratitude. Of all those memories, though, I find it curious which memory usually comes to mind first.
What I remember first about my grandmother—in a vivid snapshot memory—is her sitting at the kitchen table in the slowly intensifying light of the early morning. The house is silent. Her elbow is resting on the table, one hand pinching the skin above her brow, the other fingering a rosary dangling near her knees. Her eyes are closed tight and she has the look of intense, almost painful concentration on her face while her lips mutter prayers into the stillness of the morning. I can’t remember if I only saw this scene once or if it occurred multiple times for my viewing, but nevertheless, this is the first thing I usually remember about her. Something of what she meant to me is wrapped up in that memory, though I cannot wrap my mind around that meaning.
I do not have that memory of faith for my grandfather. I tend to remember his childlike laugh when he teased my little brother, whom he loved with a special kind of devotion. I remember his voice rising above its normal volume to correct or to command. I remember the picture of him clad in an orange hunting suit, smiling next to the carcass of the deer he strung up at the end of the day. He never came to Mass with us when I visited my grandparents for weeks and weeks every summer when I was younger. I cannot recall a time when I saw him pray. He was relentlessly disciplined and principled, though he certainly was not what one would recognize as a person of faith.
I loved both of my grandparents, and because of that love I feel their loss even today. I do not feel that loss as greatly or regularly as I should, but I do feel it. My love for them also springs forward in hope. Even though they are no longer here with me, I still strangely want what is good for them. I want them to live in some way even though they have died and I feel their death.
The difference between them for me, though, is that I don’t have the same kind of memory of my grandfather that I have of my grandmother: a memory that can anchor my hope. When I return to my faith and seek to entrust my grandmother to the love of God, I can move from what I myself have seen toward what I imagine God sees when he looks at her, even now. I can hope that God’s first memory of grandma is something like my own—or that mine is something like God’s, as it were. I hope that He sees her sitting at the table in the early morning, moving beads between her fingers, praying alone before the tasks of the day. Maybe that is who she truly was, beneath all the other memories.
For my grandfather, I just don’t know what I hope that God sees. Does He see the delight of that childlike laugh? Does He hear that voice ascending over the humdrum of home-life? Does He rejoice at a successful hunt? What I do know is that it is against the darkness and unknowing of death that I search for hope in place of hope that my grandfather lives anew in the God in whom I seek to entrust my own life. The man whom I last saw fading into death when the feeding tubes had been removed in that lightly lit, modestly comfortable hospital room more than seven years ago is the same man whom I know entered into the abyss of death and was no more. Into that abyss, I cast my hope—inchoate as my hope may be. Perhaps this is the deepest essence of hope: to believe without assurance, without any fully explicable reason, that life may be called out of loss.
The Silence of Christ
It can certainly feel as if hope of this sort goes out into nothing but empty space. I have yet to receive a vision like St. Perpetua’s of my loved one’s thirst finally slaked. There seems to be no response to my hope, and yet still I hope. To whom does this hope go? Who receives it in the silence?
There is no answer, only faith. By faith, I place my trust beyond any and all explanation into the hands of the one whom I believe—at the core of my being—came down from heaven and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. I have based my life on the belief that He who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried is the same Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. I am gripped by the belief that this One—the Son of God, the love of the Father come down to us—came down so far that He descended into hell. In that shadowy place of death, in the stillness following the Cross, in that tomb sealed and guarded, with all the isolated souls of those who live no more, the Lord Jesus receives the hope that leads me to pray for my grandfather. My hope does go out into the silence, but by faith I believe that the Word of Life assumes the silence and makes it His own. In Him, I hope.
My hope for my grandfather is not just a hope for him, but a hope for all of us. I hope that no matter how unworthy he or I or any of us may be, no matter how negligible our faith may become, the descending Love of God will reach us and lead us out of the grave. I hope that the Lord, the giver of life will seal our one baptism for the forgiveness of sins forming us into one communion of saints unto the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. My hope is that, in the end, my life doesn’t stop with me, that my grandfather’s life didn’t stop with him. Somehow, mysteriously, our lives were joined together when I was born into his family, and especially when I passed through the waters into which he had previously been baptized. I hope that even now, when I remain and he has gone, that the life that we shared can be made stronger than that which seems to separate us: the chasm of death.
The Body of Christ
Part of the reason I was so dissatisfied at my grandfather’s funeral is because in a non-egotistical way, that funeral was about me, too. It was about what I hope makes me who I am: the efficacy of my baptism, the nourishment of the Eucharist, the seal of my confirmation, the healing of each confession, the bond of my marriage. It is the hope that I am mystically living in the Body of Christ. That is, ultimately, what I hope for my grandfather, too. It is also what I hope my grandmother was expressing in the early morning at the kitchen table. It is what I hope my father accepted when he went to 6:30am Mass every weekday morning as he was raising two young boys by himself. It is what I hope my dearest friends have professed in their vows before the altar, and what I hope we have all plunged our children into at our parishes’ baptismal founts. This is my hope—it is the hope of all the Church—that all the faithful departed live in his Body forever. It is the hope of All Souls Day, a hope that is stronger than death.
More and more, the memory that recurs when I think of my grandfather is of our last moment together in that hospital room. Part of me is still surprised that I had the audacity to trace the Sign of the Cross on his forehead and pray over him. Perhaps the meaning of who he was to me is mysteriously wrapped up in that memory, even though I can’t quite grasp what that meaning is. It is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).
Note: This author has another reflection entitled “What Saints Sound Like” posted earlier this week on the Notre Dame Vision blog, Full of Grace.