When I was a child, as part of our family prayer, we used to pray for a happy death.
In my young mind, I spontaneously associated a happy death with dying cradled in the loving arms of family and church, fully at peace with God and everyone around you.
Not many persons, even very good persons, get to die like that. Given the randomness and contingencies of human circumstances, very often people die in broken and compromised situations: bitter, unforgiving and unforgiven, not having dealt with their own sings, unreconciled with their own families and the church, alienated, indifferent to God and community, angry, drunk, dead by drug overdose, by suicide. Or, at times, death catches people before they have had or taken the time to say some things that should have been said or done some things that should have been done. Very often when people die they leave behind, on this side of heaven, much unfinished business. As an old Confiteor has it, there is a need to be reconciled for what’s been said and left unsaid, done and left undone.
To cite a few small examples: I once, in counselling, dealt with a man in his 50s who was unable to forgive himself because his mother, as she was dying (when he was seven and unware that she was dying) asked him to come and hug her and he, inhibited, male, refused. More than 40 years later there was still some unfinished business.
In another case, I officiated at the funeral of a man who, just before getting killed in an accident, had had a major blowup with his family and stomped out of the house in a rage of anger.
Many of us, I am sure, have had persons close to us die with whom we had unfinished business. Perhaps we hurt them, or they hurt us and it was never reconciled, or we should have given them more of ourselves but were too preoccupied with our own lives to reach out at the time, or we hated them and should have made some gestures of reconciliation and we didn’t and now it’s too late! Death has separated them from us and what was left unfinished now lies, irrevocably, unfinished and we live with guilt and keep saying: “If only, if only…”
These “if onlys” will disappear if we take seriously the Christian doctrine concerning the communion of saints. This doctrine, so central to our faith that it is one of the doctrines enshrined in the creed, asks us to believe that we are still in vital communion with those who have died, indeed in privileged communication.
To believe in the communion of saints is to believe that those who have died are still linked to us in such a way that we can continue to communicate, to talk, with them. It is to believe that our relationship with them can continue to grow and that the reconciliation which, for many human reasons, was not possible in this life can now take place.
Why? Because not only is there communication between us and those who have died before us (this is the stuff of Christian doctrine, not that of séance) but because this communication is now privileged. Death washes clean. Not only does the church teach us that, we simply experience it.
How often in a family, in a friendship, in a community, in any human network, is there tension, misunderstanding, anger, frustration, irreconcilable difference, selfishness that divides, hurt which can no longer be undone, and then… someone dies! The death brings with it a peace, a clarity, and a charity which, prior to it, were not possible.
Why is this so? It is not because someone has died and that changes the chemistry of the family or the office or the circle, nor is it because, as might seem the case sometimes, the source of the tension, or headache, or heartache, or bitterness has died. It happens because, as Luke teaches us in the incident where on the cross Christ forgives the good thief, death washes things clean.
Analytical words fail me in trying to explain this, so allow me to resort to story.
Some years ago, a woman, then 49, recounted to me how, after being sexually abused by her own father at age nine, she lived for some 40 years in anger, bitter and unreconciled, not just with her father who had abused her, but with life itself. Her healing took place with her father’s death. For years she had avoided him and been unable to feel anything but bitter hatred towards him. She told me how on returning home from his funeral she had looked at him in his casket and… “he looked so peaceful. All the anger and jealousy I had always seen in his face seemed to have drained out with death. He looked more peaceful than I had ever seen him in life. I kissed him and, for the first time ever in my memory, I had for him some sympathy and understanding. Suddenly I felt for him, for his struggles, for his own hurts, for his addictions. It was as if hi death washed away the dirt and the hatred.”
In the communion of saints we have privileged communication with those with whom we still have unfinished business. It can be a great consolation to die a happy death, snug and reconciled in the arms and the warm thoughts of those around us. Fortunately, for them and their loved ones, there is a privileged time after death to finish off some things for those whose lives end in situations full of bitterness, anger, irresponsibility, sin, and lack of warmth and love.