Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Rite to Remember: Music and Ritual Fill the Space around Death When Words Fail Us

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Rite to Remember: Music and Ritual Fill the Space around Death When Words Fail Us

Article excerpt


Three deaths in one year lingered in the mind, the sadness unresolved. My friend Kathy had battled inflammatory breast cancer for two years, fighting to stay alive for her husband, young son, and daughter. She died at the age of 57.

My sons friend Andrew was an extreme skier, so active and vibrant that we first thought he'd died in a mountain-climbing, biking, or kayaking accident. His short time was packed with so many activities and loving relationships that it answered robustly the question of poet Mary Oliver, printed on the funeral program, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" He walked into the hospital and died four hours later of strep pneumonia. He was 32.

My sister-in-law Beth was, true to character, sweet and uncomplaining about a prolonged, fierce backache. Turned out it was stage-four cancer. She died three weeks after her diagnosis at the age of 56.

The stark facts don't show how we can be ambushed by grief, surprised by its spiral, especially when those who died were young, their deaths unexpected. I had wished my background was Spanish-speaking, so I could grieve openly in the community of other like-minded people during Dia de los Muertos. Perhaps those traditions, forged over centuries, could soothe aching hearts and unanswered questions.

But they weren't my customs. I don't know them like those who've inhaled them like the fragrance of tortillas or roasting chilies in their youth. So the grief continued, as I hoarded memories of the dead and tried to stand with their grieving relatives.

My Jesuit friend Jeff explained that concentric circles surround the deceased. In the first circle is the immediate family: spouse, parents, siblings, children. Behind them stand close friends and relatives. Within the third circle are those who knew the person but weren't intimate. Jeff suggested we maintain our place within our circle, not stepping forward if we weren't closely connected in life. But by the same token, we shouldn't step back: We need to support those in other circles.

Standing with the grieving still didn't resolve my outrage that three marvelous people had unfairly died so young, apparently healthy. No theological explanations made much sense.

Then I attended Mozart's Requiem for All Souls Day at St. James Cathedral in Seattle. There I saw the power of ritual to carry our grief, uniting us with loved ones at a level beyond language. The Missa pro Defunctis (Mass for the Dead) has been a tradition since the 14th century, and its power continues today: surging, calming, uplifting, buoying hope.

Any ritual guides us across a threshold into the unknown, and the passage from life to death is terrifying. We wonder about our own deaths: Are they imminent? Are we ready? The rite instills confidence, guiding and protecting us as it has many others making the same precarious crossing.

The All Souls Mass was Catholic liturgy at its best: a solemn procession, candles and incense, awkward altar servers transformed into angelic icons, the readings sung, all in a sweeping space that dwarfed the human beings. The golden vaults and massive crucifix proclaimed: You are not actors on a small stage here. You take your rightful, human place among saints, martyrs, and seraphim.

Our culture, dreading death, stuffs it away in a back drawer. Yet the Dies Irae trumpets it, calls it forth in politically incorrect terms and unmasks it with a jolt. "Death will be stunned," the choir sings, and Paul echoes, "Where, O death, is your sting? …

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