It is not uncommon today to hear it said that “Funerals are for the living.” After all why should the dead care, really, what music is played or how we remember them? But death does matter and so do the dead. Funerals are precisely about those who have died and the obligations that the living have towards the mortal remains and towards the immortal soul. Funerals are for the living, but only because of their connection with the dead. It is also common to immediately opine that so-and-so are in a better place now (presumably, it is meant that they are assuredly in heaven) and their long suffering is finally at an end. Funerals, we are told, are to be happy affairs where the dead are remembered only in pleasant terms, with a degree of saccharine sentimentality, and all too often in a way which makes the deceased rather unrecognizable to those who knew and loved them. If ever anyone listened to the prayers of the Church on behalf of the dead it must come as a surprise that she begs mercy for their sins. The prayers for All Souls Day asks God to “look mercifully on your departed servants,” and to “wash away, we pray, in the Blood of Christ, the sins of your departed servants,” and “humbly implores” the Lord that they may be “cleansed by the paschal mysteries.” Holy Mother Church, it seems, has quite a different approach than that of the modern culture, especially in American society.
Our society has emptied out from its memories not only the Christian doctrine of purgatory but also, the very human, and very Christian, notion that we bear any sort of responsibility towards the dead. To quote Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman: “What is the world's religion now? It has taken the brighter side of the Gospel,—its tidings of comfort, its precepts of love; all darker, deeper views of man's condition and prospects being comparatively forgotten. This is the religion natural to a civilized age, and well has Satan dressed and completed it into an idol of the Truth. ... then disappear also, in the creed of the day, those fearful images of Divine wrath with which the Scriptures abound. They are explained away. Every thing is bright and cheerful. Religion is pleasant and easy; benevolence is the chief virtue; intolerance, bigotry, excess of zeal, are the first of sins.” Of course, Blessed Newman was writing in an age where he could still say that the world had taken something of the Gospel. Our world has moved on. In his time, they kept some inklings of the Gospel where kindness and niceties are concerned – we may still find in our churches, regardless of denomination, those who are inclined to this kind of a reduced Christianity. They refuse to make a place for Divine wrath which would be manifest if only they could bear to gaze upon the Holy Cross. In their refusal, they transform heaven into the doctors waiting room, where there is only superficial politeness and boredom. They wish to enter into Heaven without any punishment for their sins. They want to remain unchanged, exactly as they are, defects and all. Just imagine the residents of heaven with all their foibles, or at least the marring effects of their sins upon their souls, spending their time in utter boredom being pleasant and tolerant towards one another. I could hardly imagine a less heavenly image. The radiant Beauty of God, his Divine Majesty, and his transcendent Glory will not allow this to be the case.
St. Catherine of Siena says that the fires which torment the souls in hell is in reality the fire of God’s love, which the obstinate sinner experiences as wrath. St. Augustine says something similar: Hell is where God’s constant and unending love licks at the souls of the damned which refuse to melt. The saint has been purified from every defect, from the stain of every sin, and so becomes radiant with God’s love and shines like the stars. Those who die in God’s friendship, yet with the effects of their sins still upon their souls are as yet incapable of resting in the blazing fire of God’s love. There are parts of their souls which do not yet reflect properly the Beauty, Majesty and Glory of God. The soul when it meets its Creator after death is for the first time fully aware of the depths of their own deformity and the heights of God’s perfections. It is not as if God wishes merely to overlook their imperfections and simply engage in that superficial tolerance and polite pleasantness which the world has come to value. He desires the soul to share as fully as possible in his own gifts. If this is punishment for our faults, it is also a great mercy on God’s behalf. For how could we ever enjoy his presence and be enraptured with his Beauty, if we were at the same time only more aware of our own faults in the brilliant light of the Truth?
Just as the saints intercede for us so that we might one day enjoy the sight of God just as he is, we pray for the holy souls in purgatory – holy because they are in God’s friendship and so destined for heaven. Our prayers are like love letters for the souls of the dead, urging them on in this process of purification. We, in some manner, relieve them of their distress since they have glimpsed the radiance of God and know most intimately their own unworthiness. God has no need of our help in this matter. Our prayers do not increase his generosity or his mercy. But it is his will that we love one another just as his Son has loved us, and love does not cease with death. In our devotions for the dead, our prayers, and other pious acts, we give help to our loved ones, even the souls unknown to us. This act of love also helps our own purification here in this world. The souls in purgatory and ourselves are being made perfect so that we might praise God with the saints forever in the life of the world to come.