In the final post in our series on the Mystery of Death, we reflect on how our earthly pilgrimage prepares us for death.
For many of us the last year will go down as one of the worst in recent memory. A contentious election cycle (the ripple effects of which are still being felt) left most Americans with a sour stomach. But as tough as all that was, for many the year was particularly upsetting for one reason: 2016 was “The Year That Killed (almost) Everybody.” Not really, of course. People die every year – every day, in fact. But last year a lot well-known people died at what seemed like an alarming rate. Thanks to social media, the news of every one of those deaths was immediate and ubiquitous. Suddenly our own mortality seemed as close as our Facebook feed. Much was written about the silliness of “mourning” celebrities, ridiculing the idea that 2016 was somehow “cursed,” and “stealing” celebrities away from us. In hindsight, I think the whole conversation missed the point. Death is a reality none can escape, and in a world where news is shared in seconds, it’s not a matter of suddenly soaring numbers, but of our increased awareness that this life doesn’t last forever.
The “celebrity death” that most impacted me kicked off last year’s mythical “trend.” On the morning of January 11, I awoke to the news that singer David Bowie had passed away the day before, following a private battle with cancer. The news left me strangely shaken. Bowie had been my companion through years of teen angst, college coming of age, and independence-seeking young adulthood. His music was the soundtrack for a large segment of my life, and even as my tastes evolved and I moved from “fangirl” to appreciating a wider musical landscape, Bowie was always in the background. Wherever I was in my life, in whatever season or circumstance, if a Bowie song turned up on the radio I put on my red shoes and danced the blues, without missing a beat. Like an old friend not often heard from, but always kept in one’s heart, David Bowie and his music were just always there. Until, he wasn’t.
On December 10, 2013, my mom, Dolores, passed away in the hospital. She didn’t have what you’d call a “good death,” in that she was in some distress at the end. Details aren’t necessary, mostly because three years haven’t eased the pain or erased the memory of that evening. I’m not naïve to the fact that suffering is part of life, and too often an aspect of the dying process. Still, watching someone you love suffer is hard, and it’s okay to admit that and to feel it. To dwell on it, though, disturbs one’s mental and spiritual peace, and gets in the way of the good memories and the love we continue to have for those who’ve passed. Bingeing on thoughts about that suffering, having regrets, and second-guessing one’s participation in the dying process (Was I truly present at the end? Could I have done something to prevent the suffering – or even the inevitable?) leads us away from experiencing the death of a loved one – and Christ’s presence in this experience – in a truly Christian way.
This post isn’t about a rock star, or “the year that killed people,” or even my mom. It’s about living a good life that puts death in the proper perspective. It feels strange to say it, but David Bowie’s death exactly two years and one month after my mom’s put me in touch with the reality of the Communion of Saints in ways I never expected. Bowie indulged in all the excesses a rock n’ roll lifestyle affords (quite a different one from my cradle-Catholic mom), until he “settled down” in the last 25-30 years of his life. His music was provocative, sometimes incomprehensible, but always infused with a sense of the Supernatural. Bowie sought God in his music, but I think his search was fraught with obstacles – many of his own making. How his search ended on that Sunday in January, I don’t know. I pray for him every day, though, as I pray for my mom and so many other souls who have passed. Taken together, I think that reflecting on the “God-haunted” life of a stranger, and the “God-seeking” (as imperfect as it often was) of my own mother awakened in me a new urgency to live a Christ-centered life, while hoping for a Christ-centered death – for myself and for others.
We shouldn’t dwell on death in a morbid way that consumes us, frightens us, or becomes obsessive. God wants us to live a good life (striving toward virtue, avoiding sin, and being in right relationship with Him and our neighbors), while being mindful that this life is not our ultimate end. God wants us to live a good life, and hope and pray for a good death. That seems like a contradiction, but it recognizes that this life is a journey, not a destination. Our lives should reflect our hope for an experience of death that leads us to the joy of Heaven. A good death isn’t simply (or exclusively) one free of pain – though that’s a worthy prayer! A good death (for the Catholic/Orthodox Christian) affords us the Sacrament of the Sick, receiving the grace and comfort needed for passage into new life. A good death offers the opportunity to “make our peace” with loved ones, say our goodbyes, and allow family and friends to be with us. A good death is one in which we are mindful of the nearness of the Lord, so that when He calls to us, we will have the grace to respond, “Yes, Lord!”. We should hope and pray that we, and those we love, experience peace and comfort, lack fear, and gratefully anticipate the warm embrace of our Father when it is time for us to go.
Having a good death isn’t just about the dying process and the moment of death. As believers in the Communion of Saints, we know that the souls of those who’ve died continue to need our help as they are purified by God. Through prayer, sacrifice, and celebration of the Liturgy we commend to God’s mercy the souls of all those who have died, both the saintly and the committed sinner. The death of David Bowie convicted me of the necessity to pray especially for those who didn’t know God, lost faith in Him, doubted or even rejected Him. As I said earlier, I don’t know the state of Bowie’s soul at the end. But I pray with confidence that the God who isn’t limited by time hears my plea for a flood of Divine Mercy to be poured into the souls of all His departed (even if doubting) children, that they would recognize the Lord’s voice and embrace His mercy. This is what God asks of me and of you: to pray, trust in His mercy and have hope.
Praying for the souls of those who have died is good (and necessary) for them – but it’s also good for us. It reminds us that they’re gone from our sight, but not gone forever. Prayer keeps them close to us, in our minds, in our hearts, and on our lips as we speak their names to the Father of Mercy. Praying for the dead helps us maintain a healthy outlook on death as that mysterious, scary, but inevitable doorway to Life. The Communion of Saints – those of us praying through our pilgrimage here on earth, and the saints already in Heaven – are the family of God, and our prayers are joined together in praise and petition. Thus, praying for the dead draws us more closely together as a family.
Death shouldn’t be a morbid obsession, but a reminder that this life is a pilgrimage, and death the last signpost before reaching our destination. Instead paralyzing us with fear, death should shape how we live our lives. Mortality needn’t be a cloud over our heads, but should move us toward a deeper our relationship with God. Our lives should be an invitation for others to experience the joy of loving and being loved by Him. Therefore, as urgent as it is for us to pray for those who have died, we must also pray for the living who don’t know God, who doubt Him, or who are so wounded and hurt (for whatever reason) that they turn away from Him. When the opportunity presents itself – and the Spirit moves us – we may share our experience of God’s love with them. But when it’s not possible – or prudent – to explicitly share the Gospel, we should fervently pray that God will soften hearts, heal wounds, open minds, and rain down His mercy on them, and all of us.
A rock star, a mom, a torrent of celebrity deaths, a year that seemed to have been orchestrated by the Grim Reaper himself, and the mercy of God at the end of this life. I’ll admit this is an odd mix of thoughts for considering living a good life, and having a good death. But God meets each one of us where we are, in our pain and in our joy; in fond memories of a loving mother…and in our Spotify playlists. God speaks to us of His abundant mercy and love in the suffering of our dear ones, and in the song that cries out for a sign that He is real. I pray every day for the soul of my mother, because I love her still and I want her to rest close to the heart of the Lord she remained faithful to until the end. I pray, too, for the rock icon who touched me so deeply with his art, and stirred in my heart the hope that he – and many others among my own family and friends who’s hearts somehow grew cold with doubt – experienced a flood of warm and healing Mercy. I pray that I’ll live my life a little bit better every day – more Christ-centered, more loving and merciful. I pray that each day I’ll be more mindful that while death is no picnic, it is the means by which Christ to leads us to the Feast of the Lamb. Let’s pray for the souls who have gone before us, for ourselves, and for each other. And let’s do our best to live a good life, and ask God for the gift of a good and holy death.
O Lord, I am the image of Your glory * which is beyond description, * even though I bear the marks of transgressions. * Have mercy on Your creature. * O Master, in Your compassion cleanse me. * Grant me the home I yearn for, * and again make me an inhabitant of paradise.
~From “Great Panachida, Office of Christian Burial (according to the Byzantine Rite) in the Church.” Prayer of the Deceased.
Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs.