Growing up, as part of our family prayer, we used to pray for a happy death.
I pictured that this way: you died cradled in the loving arms of family, friends, and church, fully at peace with God and everyone around you.
That’s a good picture, the ideal, but not everyone gets to die that way. Randomness, contingency, and accidents too often have us die in broken, compromised, and cold situations: bitter, unforgiving, unforgiven, not fully reconciled, alienated from someone, not going to church, angry, drunk, dead by drug overdose, a victim of suicide. Death, not infrequently, catches some of us before we’ve had time to say the things we should have said or do the things we should have done. Too often we die with unfinished business, too much of it. As the old confiteor says: we need forgiveness for what we’ve done and left undone.
To give a few examples: I was once counselling a man, a priest in his fifties, who was still unable to forgive himself because when he was a young, shy, and frightened boy of seven, and his mother lay dying, he was too afraid to give her a hug when she asked for it. More than forty years later, he still nursed guilt and a deep regret for this unfinished business with his long-dead mother.
In another case, I officiated at the funeral of a man who had been quite happily married for 35 years. One afternoon he had a bitter argument with his wife over some minor thing, rushed out of the house in anger, and was killed in an accident minutes later. What terrible timing for one’s death!
Many of us can empathize with these examples. Who among us doesn’t have unfinished business with someone whom death has taken away? Perhaps we had hurt that person, or he or she had hurt us, and it was never fully reconciled. Or we feel guilt because, while that person was alive, we should have given more of ourselves to him or her, but were too busy with our own lives to reach out. Worse still, perhaps someone has died for whom we had felt hatred and we should have made some gesture of reconciliation and we never did. Now it’s too late! Death has separated us and some painful bitterness now lies irrevocably unresolved and we live with the guilt, wishing we had done something before it was too late.
But it’s not too late. It’s never too late if we take seriously the Christian doctrine of the communion of saints. This doctrine, so central and important that’s enshrined in our creed, asks us to believe that we are still in real community of life and communication with those who have died.
To believe in the communion of saints is to believe that those who have died are still alive and are linked to us in such a way that we can continue to talk with them, that our relationship with them can continue to grow, and that the reconciliation that wasn’t possible before their deaths can now occur.
Why can this happen now, when it seemed so impossible before?
Because our communication with them is now privileged. Death washes some things clean. This is not the stuff of fantasy, but of solid dogma. We know its truth because we experience it.
How often in a family, a friendship, a community, or in any human network, do we experience a tension, a misunderstanding, an anger, a frustration, an irreconcilable difference, a selfishness, or a hurt that can’t be undone, and then everything changes because someone dies? The death brings a peace, a clarity, and a charity, that were not possible before.
Why? It’s not simply because the death changed the chemistry and took someone out of the family, the office, or the circle of friends, or even, as may sometimes seem the case, the source of the tension is the one who died. It happens because, as Luke’s account of Jesus on the cross teaches, death washes things clean.
“Today you will be with me in paradise!” Jesus speaks those words to the good thief on the cross and they’re meant for every one of us who dies without yet fully being a saint and without having had the time and opportunity to make all the amends and speak all the apologies that we owe to others. There is still time after death, on both sides, for reconciliation and healing to happen because inside the communion of saints we have privileged access to each other and there we can finally speak all of those words that we couldn’t speak before. We can reach across death’s divide.
It can be a great consolation to die a happy death, snug and reconciled in the arms of love, with no unfinished business. But, happily, there’s time still after death for this to happen for those of us who aren’t so lucky and who end up dying with some bitterness, anger, wound, and frustration still gnawing away.