Memento mori. The literal translation of this Latin phrase is “remember death,” and it has been used in Christian art, literature and theology for centuries to communicate the Catholic understanding that all life is a prelude to death, the moment when we will come face-to-face with our Creator.
If it sounds depressing, it isn’t — not when it is presented alongside the Catholic understanding of eternal life through the salvation of Jesus Christ. In that context, “remember death” actually becomes “remember what your life is for.”
For the Christian, death is important to think about, for ourselves and for others. We need to prepare spiritually for it, and we need to fulfill our duty to those Catholics who have died by aiding them with our prayers and giving them the full accompaniment of the Church’s three-fold funeral rite.
So why are we not talking about it more in our parishes?
In fact, that’s pretty much Dcn. Jorge Benavente’s job description. As the Director of Outreach Ministries on behalf of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Catholic Cemeteries, he is tasked with visiting parish communities throughout the archdiocese to communicate the importance of the Order of Christian Funerals, and what concrete steps the faithful can take to ensure that, in death, they are wrapped completely in the consoling ministry of the Catholic Church.
The eight cemeteries overseen include Calvary, Holy Cross, Holy Trinity, Mount Olivet and St. Adalbert in Milwaukee; St. Joseph in Waukesha; Resurrection in Mequon; and All Saints in Pleasant Prairie.
The simplest way for a person to prepare is to pre-plan their funeral arrangements, so Dcn. Benavente urges that all Catholics do so. But he’s far from a crypt salesman: proper Catholic formation on end-of-life issues is his main goal when he visits parishes.
“In the Catholic Church, we prepare everyone for Baptism. We prepare the people for First Communion. We also prepare the young people for Confirmation. And if you want to get married, you have to go to a marriage preparation,” he said. “But it’s not very popular to prepare our parishioners for the end of life.”
Too often it happens that a deceased Catholic is not given the proper funeral rites because they did not make their wishes known to surviving family members, who themselves may no longer be practicing Catholics.
The Catholic funeral rites are composed of the wake, the liturgy and the rite of committal, or burial. It is not required that Mass be a component, but it is recommended — the Eucharist being central to the life and salvation of a Christian, it only makes sense that it is also central to the observance of that Christian’s death.
The Order of Christian Funerals says it best: “At the death of a Christian, whose life of faith was begun in the waters of baptism and strengthened at the Eucharistic table, the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end, nor does it break the bonds forged in life.”
“We have found that if there’s a nonpracticing heir, a son or daughter or anybody planning the funeral, they’re not necessarily against following the Catholic rite. It’s just not top of mind for them,” said Mary Thiel, Director of Cemeteries at Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services. “And that’s where we’ve trained our family service advisors to kindly walk family members through that process. They just need direction and education, in a nonjudgmental way, but in a strong way.”
Thiel emphasizes that it’s not effective enough to simply wait for family members to come to the cemetery after the death of a loved one, when they are burdened by their own grief and the task of planning a funeral. As a Church, she said, “we need to get ahead of it.”
“We need to reach more parishes and work side-by-side with more pastors,” she said. “There is such a lack of formation, and there has to be some way to bring up the conversation — even if the priest himself wants to be the one to do it.”
Thiel also notes that there exist some misconceptions about who runs Catholic Cemeteries — the Archdiocese of Milwaukee does that, with the support of CFCS, which is a nonprofit organization. Though Thiel is an employee of CFCS, she was born and raised here, attends St. John Vianney Parish in Brookfield and works alongside Dcn. Benavente, who is an archdiocesan employee.
Thiel encourages pastors to preach about this topic even if they don’t want CFCS to visit their parish. The Catholic faithful need formation on what the Church teaches about death; in particular, misinformation about Church teaching on cremation and the handling of cremated remains is unfortunately widespread, as is an understanding of where exactly Catholics should be buried (in a Catholic cemetery if possible, or if in a secular one, the plot must be blessed by a priest or deacon).
“The reason we do this isn’t to sell people a grave or a crypt. It’s to educate them on the whole process,” said Thiel.
CFCS family service counselors can assist with advance planning for all aspects of burial, memorialization and funeral options. Payment plans are available for the purchase of burial plots, crypts and niches, and Dcn. Benavente stressed that CFCS is willing to find options that will work for any financial situation. Additionally, Catholics can pre-plan their funeral liturgy with their own parishes.
“This is like a crusade for me, to talk to as many people as I can every Sunday,” he said. “Nobody can argue with me that someday — we don’t know when — but this is going to happen, and we’ve got to be prepared.”
For more information on Catholic funeral rites, visit https://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/sacraments-and-sacramentals/bereavement-and-funerals/overview-of-catholic-funeral-rites. For more information on advance planning with CFCS, visit https://www.cemeteries.org/Advance-Planning.htm.