Daily Archives: August 22, 2010

How Vatican II changed the perception of death, part two

"Burial of Christ", Duccio di Buoninsegna, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

This is the continuation of the part one published yesterday. You can find the link here.

The first part has examined the following changes to the perception of death:
1) loss of the all-importance of death in the economy of salvation
2) loss of proper mourning
3) loss of modesty

Still, there are other aspects I do not want to leave unmentioned.

4) Loss of courage. Death has become something people do not want to see coming, or experience in the first place. They want to die in their sleep, or in some other very fast way. Most of all, they are terrified of becoming aware that they are dying. This is in striking contrast with Christian tradition. When people truly believed that death was the all-decisive moment, they wanted to be there with all their faculties and all their heart. They didn’t wish for sudden death, they asked to be freed from it! A subitanea et improvisa morte libera nos domine, goes the Litany of the saints as the idea of dying without proper preparation would have been simply terrifying to a Christian of the past. He was supposed to accept his own death, to willingly make a gift of his life to God who is the owner of it, to make sure he would receive death with a clear conscience, after receiving the sacraments, with eyes wide open so to speak. Romano Amerio reports that when King Louis XIII’s doctor saw his end approaching, his confessor woke him up so that he could be adequately prepared for death. The contrast with today’s practice of letting people die in their sleep is very marked. Of course, very saintly people can still legitimately claim that they wish a sudden death. Pope Pius XI was a point in case, but he wished a sudden death so that he could feel admonished to be completely ready for death in every moment of his life, which is a rather tall order for all but the best. This is not yours truly’s case nor, I dare say, the one of most of his readers.

5) Loss of honesty. Continuing on the theme seen under 1) (that salvation is considered more or less a given rather than an event we may hope for but never be sure of) the present custom seems to be that whoever has been baptised will receive a Christian funeral. This is a problematic praxis as the Christian funeral is supposed to be given only to the person of whom it may be at least supposed that he died as a Christian. To make just a couple of examples, avowed atheists and people who have committed suicide (particularly if the suicide has been carefully prepared, as in the frequent case of farewell letters), should receive no Christian funeral (and in the past did, in fact, not receive it).The fact that everyone might be saved cannot be changed in the assumption that everyone is saved. This is false charity which gives scandal on the one side and devalues Christian ceremonies (now demoted to mere social usages) on the other side. Incidentally, one notices all over the West (particularly in Italy, were the suicide rate used to be exemplarily low) an increase in suicides. This is not a surprise, as a priest who consents to celebrate a Christian funeral for a suicide demolishes the Christian taboo surrounding it. Further suicides are the obvious consequences but no one seems to care as “niceness” is preserved and everyone can feel oh so pious and inclusive.

6) Loss of tradition and symbolism. A Christian body is supposed to be buried. Whilst this is not a dogmatic point, burial makes a lot of sense. On the one hand, it is a way of following in Jesus’ footsteps, whose deposition and burial were extremely vivid in the faithful’s mind out of Gospel hearing, countless meditations, stations of the cross, rosaries and other devotions. On the other hand, burial entails a promise of resurrection, again following Christ’s resurrection after his own burial. The symbolism of burial would never have escaped a Christian of the past, because he would have been intimately connected with the richness of its meaning. But in a world which doesn’t meditate anymore on Christ’s burial, further considerations prevail. The ignorance about the works of mercy also doesn’t allow to consider that one of them is “to bury the dead”, not “to cremate the dead”.

I am sure one could find other aspects, but it is opportune to stop here. We see a clear trend: the loss of traditional thinking and devotional practice and the neglect of the proper understanding of doctrine have led not only to a dumbing down or outright neglect of practices like the funeral and the burial, but they have even caused a dumbing down of death and judgment as the all-important events of our life. When easy-to-swallow fake medicines are administered in the stead of true ones, we see the disease spreading.

It is high time to recover the proper meaning of death, judgment, funeral, and burial. It is not a matter of rituals, it is a matter of right understanding of the Truth.


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