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Photo from AmyW, Unsplash

It might sound macabre, but I love going to funerals. 

From an early age, my mother instilled in us the importance of attending funerals and praying for the dead. Each November, I remember that praying for the dead is a practice infused with deep hope and important theological lessons. 

From middle school through high school, when my peers would say they had never been to a funeral before, I couldn’t understand how that was possible. My mom regularly took us out of school for funerals of relatives and family friends. It was a corporal work of mercy, she reminded us. When I was in middle school and my science teacher’s mom passed away, my mom and I drove two hours to the funeral. We sat with other teachers and school administrators in a church we had never been to. I can still recall the rightness of the feeling while sitting in the pews; it was clear that this was where all of us belonged.

I can still recall the people who showed up at my grandparents’ funerals. I remember Bonnie Lou Dunphy, a parishioner at my home parish whom my family certainly knew, but not extremely well, sitting in the back of the church at my paternal grandmother’s funeral. I choked back tears as I rested with both confusion and comfort. Had Bonnie Lou ever met my grandma? I’m not sure, but there she was. 

I can still recall the rightness of the feeling while sitting in the pews; it was clear that this was where all of us belonged.

I remember my and my brother’s friends who missed school to attend my maternal grandmother’s funeral. I saw their faces in the congregation as my grandma’s casket went down the aisle while we sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Funerals can remind us of how deeply our lives are intertwined with the lives of others. A funeral reveals that Bonnie Lou Dunphy, for instance, is connected to my cousin Chris, two people who, on the surface, seem to have no connection at all. In fact, Bonnie Lou and Chris have never spoken. But through the memory and the life of my grandmother, I saw that they were connected. 

A few years ago, Dorothy Foley, a member of my home parish, passed away tragically and unexpectedly. Because of the protocols in my Jesuit formation community, I was unable to return home for the funeral. I was saddened that I couldn’t be there to pray for her eternal rest and to mourn with the community. 

The following year, I brought a photo of Dorothy to place on a picture board at the back of my current parish in St. Louis, where we hung pictures of the dead during November. I placed Dorothy’s photo next to Mildred Brewer’s, a woman I regularly visited and brought Communion to before she died. The ritual of praying for Dorothy and Mildred together, two women whose lives could not have been more different, revealed something profound: That they were now, and ultimately always had been, deeply connected. 

The ritual of praying for Dorothy and Mildred together, two women whose lives could not have been more different, revealed something profound: That they were now, and ultimately always had been, deeply connected. 

Remembering the dead throughout the year, and especially in November, is a practice my mom continues to cultivate within my family. On the anniversary of the death of grandparents or other loved ones, she bakes a cake to celebrate their “feast day.” This is not for every relative, every year, but often enough for the message to get across: These people matter. Remembering them matters. 

Every November, my mom writes a daily post on her Facebook honoring someone in her life who has died. The posts are generally short, but meaningful. I, and others, have come to appreciate her public sharing of these memories each year because they encourage us to cherish these same individuals and to remember our own beloved dead. 

I’m struck by the diversity of people she recalls: family members, former teachers, a former principal of our grade school and a young classmate of hers who died when they were in the fifth grade. She has publicly shared the remembrance of people she has never met (but who influenced her), friends of my siblings who have died, a man named Slim who was a regular at the bar where my brother works, and her own parents. All of them are given the same honor, the same length of reflection and the same dignity. It helps me remember the vast and diverse web of people who shape us. 

We pray for the dead because they are now commended to the mercy of God, which will be our final experience as well. 

Today, I live and teach on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where, not unlike in my own childhood, death and funerals are regular. Every week, we have students out of school for funerals. I can’t count the extensions I’ve given for work handed in late because “I was at a wake all night.” Death is regular, if not pervasive, on the reservation. 

But along with death, as it is superficially understood as an ending, memory and life are pervasive on the reservation as well. Remembering and praying to and for the ancestors is in no way limited to November. The Lakota prayer, practice, and teaching of Mitakuye Oyasin, which translates as We Are All Related, resonates for me with the practice of remembering and praying for the dead. 

Bonnie Lou Dunphy, my cousin Chris, Mildred Brewer, Dorothy Foley, Slim, the regular at my brother’s bar and Sr. Peter Damian, my family’s grade school principal, are all related. We are all related; death is one thing that helps reveal that relationality to us. 

But along with death, as it is superficially understood as an ending, memory and life are pervasive on the reservation as well.

Perhaps more than most human experiences, death triggers and necessitates memory. It requires us to store up, practice and expand memory. And memory, as St. Augustine believed, is one thing that makes us like God because it allows us to see and feel in a way that is not bound by time and space. 

More than the recognition of our interrelatedness, however, praying for and remembering the dead helps us recall our ultimate direction. We pray for the dead because they are now commended to the mercy of God, which will be our final experience as well. 

Like all meaningful Catholic practices, remembering and praying for the dead in November brings together the material and the immaterial, reminding us of the deep and lasting connection between the visible and the invisible. It can provoke in us a desire and a reminder of where we ultimately reside: in the eternal memory of God.

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