Recently, as I made plans to attend yet another wake for a beloved family member, I did what most of us do in times like this. I remembered what was. I remembered times spent together, celebrations, hardships and simple quiet moments shared. I remembered her unique smile, her indomitable spirit and her joy in life and in others.

After any death, the meeting of friends and family at the funeral parlor, the familiar routine of the wake service, the meaningful rituals of the Mass and the images and symbols of the cemetery are certain to evoke memories of loved ones lost and grief experienced. For me, at that moment, the newest loss brought to mind the burial of my very dear uncle many years ago, someone much loved and cherished, and still missed.

That morning, as we stood silently by the grave waiting for the priest to begin the last prayers, I noticed a small child toying with the baskets of flowers that led to the canvas tent. The bright pink and purples of her dainty clothes were in stark contrast to the somber hues of the adults nearby. In a world of her own, as if unaware of the soft drizzle of rain or what was taking place around her, she hummed a quiet tune and touched the silken pedals of fresh cut roses.

Though my heart ached at the painful thought of my uncle being laid to rest, I had to smile at the little girl who reminded me that life goes on. Then I was the grieving niece and the anguished daughter, having recently lost both parents. At some tomorrow I will be the deceased, as will we all.

While death, for most of us, is a thought we try to push aside and a fate we try to avoid as long as possible, it is not a bad thing to live life with an awareness that our days are numbered. It is a powerful reminder to live and love fully.

It is a reminder I feel most powerfully during the funeral liturgy, a time to be nourished by the beauty and hope found in the Mass. There is, in this gathering of grieving souls, a shared experience, not only of sorrow for the one who has died but of both past losses and future promises of new life.

The richness of the Mass seems a fitting memorial for the life of God’s own and gives those who are left behind the chance to commend their loved one to God in an act of love and dignity.

As the prayers concluded the morning of my uncle’s funeral so many years ago, I followed the young child’s lead and pulled several sweet-smelling flowers from the baskets, walking timidly around neighboring graves, trying to undo the familiar tightening in my throat as I came upon the graves of my parents.

Never did I imagine that just a few weeks ago I would be back, graveside, as my dear cousin, a sister to me growing up, was laid to rest next to my parents. Still, as we once again pulled flowers from the baskets and placed them on the headstones of the many, many family members buried there we talked about our loved ones, we cried and we laughed. We joked that since we “owned” such a large part of the cemetery, we could plan a family picnic when the weather got warmer. 

Remembering our losses is so often painful, especially when we are alone, but shared with people who knew our loved ones or who love us in our pain, it can be powerfully healing. 

For Catholics, to do so through a funeral liturgy allows us to enter into the meaning and mystery of life and death and find hope and consolation in the teachings of our faith: “In him the hope of blessed Resurrection has dawned, that those saddened by the certainty of dying might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come. Indeed, for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended, and when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven” (Preface of Mass of Christian Burial).

 Originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.