Saturday, April 21, 2018

Burying the dead and visiting the sick

“I want to be buried in Easter time,” a priest friend recently told me after a funeral Mass. 

I don’t know how many funeral Masses he has had in these past three weeks of Easter, but I assisted him in three funeral Masses and presided at two other funeral Liturgies of the Word with Communion.

Since being ordained a deacon, I have been present at more funerals. Sometimes, as was the case of three of those we buried, I had brought them communion – or being with the pastor when he anointed them and brought them communion.

Visiting the sick and burying the dead might seem to be dark and depressing, but, for me, they have been redemptive. It is a way to accompany people, trying to open up for people the presence of a God made flesh who died for and with us and who is risen. 

How appropriate to celebrate dying and death - in the season when we celebrate the risen Jesus, who still bears the wounds of his death.

I was particularly moved about ten days ago when I brought communion to two people dying of cancer.

One was a young woman with three young children. She was alert and peaceful. When I gave her communion, her oldest daughter was present. I asked her if she had yet received her first communion. She hadn’t but was preparing. The next time I saw her, she was beside her father, younger sister, and younger brother, at the side of the coffin of her mother in church.

The other was Don Efraín, here in Plan Grande. I wrote about him a few days ago log post here. in a b. His peacefulness and acceptance of death moves me. We buried him yesterday near the top of the hill of the cemetery in Candelaria, the next town over.

But there was another funeral that moved me – a poor indigenous woman, 28 years old, María Confesora. I had been present when Padre German anointed her and gave her communion one night in December. She lived in a small, rented house with her parents and a brother, in Dulce Nombre. I was moved when one of the stations of the cross of our parish’s Via Crucis stopped outside their house. Padre German went in and prayed with her during the station and, through the magic of remote microphones, we heard her pray with us.

The funeral was held early Monday morning in Dulce Nombre. 

But the family wanted to bury her in their home town of La Jigua. They had no money to pay for transporting the coffin, which had been given them. So I ended up transporting the coffin in my pick up – in a 90 minute or so trip from Dulce Nombre.

When we arrived in La Jigua, they wanted to go to the church. They got someone to open the church and brought the coffin in. Before a short service, I spoke with a woman who was cleaning the church. She knew the family and told how María Confesora was involved in the church, willing to help out in cleaning the church and whatever else might be needed. It’s amazing what we don’t know about people. I had only known her as a bed-ridden suffering young woman. But she had been an active participant in the life of her hometown faith community.

We brought the coffin to the cemetery where we finally interred her body. I brought some of the family back to Dulce Nombre.

Yesterday, we buried Don Efraín. The church in Plan Grande could not contain all the people who came. Afterwards, I went to the cemetery to pray at the graveside.

Priests (or a deacon) don’t often go to the graveside, partly because of the distance and time involved. The family often walks with the casket from the church to the grave. That can be an hour or more.

But I went and prayed and spoke with the widow, a brave woman, with the sisters of Efraín who had come from their homes in El Salvador, with some of their eleven children, and with a number of the grandchildren. My impression of Don Efraín as a gentle, humble, and loving person was reinforced by their testimony.

The tradition here in Honduras is that the people wait in the cemetery until the tomb is sealed. If the body is buried in a concrete vault in the ground, they pour cement over boards placed over the vault.

I was deeply moved, and concerned, about one of the sons who wept openly over the coffin and, at the last moment, opened the top of the casket to get a glimpse of his father. I don’t know the story, but he was really distressed. After the burial I went and embraced him. He thanked me for all I had done – which I consider all too little.

Last night, reflecting on this encounter and on the many occasions when I have given hugs to family members who ended up crying on my shoulders, I realized something. It is not me, but the presence of the Church, the people of God, that gives me the strength to be there to embrace those who are in mourning and, perhaps, offer a word of consolation and encouragement.

The servant, the deacon, is called to be there, to accompany people in their daily lives, their joys and their sorrows. It is a great privilege – and a ministry that can give deep joy.

For all this, I am grateful.

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