Project Canterbury

Locust Street Letters

By Frank Lawrence Vernon

Philadelphia: St. Mark's Church, Locust Street.




What can we do for the dead? Can we do anything? The bitterness of bereavement is the hopelessness of the feeling that everything is over. That everything has been done that can be done. That nothing remains but to remember, regret, endure. Sometimes this misbelief drives people to despair. Sometimes it drives them to a forced and wholly unreal and even unseemly cheerfulness. My object in this letter is to show that all this is misbelief. That the bitterness is needless. The despair morbid. The cheerfulness sentimental. In the place of the misbelief, I shall try to leave true belief. In the place of the bitterness, comfort. In the place of the sentimental cheerfulness, reasonable, holy and religious hope.

The first thing that we can do for the dead, is to remember that they are living. We must act toward them as living. It is true that we have done for their bodies all that we can do. Our duty to their souls remains and will be our life-long obligation. But what can we do for their souls? Do their souls need anything? Their souls always need something. They need aid in their growth in perfection. The act of dying does not make them perfect. Death is not an instantaneous transformation from imperfection to perfection. Death is going on as we are. After death we go on in the direction we have always wanted to go and tried to go, seeking what we have always desired. The farther we have gone in this world, the less we shall have to go in the next. But however far that may be, we shall not have gone all the way. There will remain much to be done. Much of purification, much of illumination, before the final union with God, and the beatific vision. The souls of the departed need our prayers. And our prayers should begin promptly and they should be our first and constant concern. If we could only remember this, we should be too much occupied with the duty of praying for our departed, to have time for thinking overmuch of ourselves. A house in which a death has occurred should be a house of prayer.

This should lead us to the House of Prayer, the Church. The Altar, not the grave, is our meeting place. At the Altar we shall find Our Lord. In the Eucharistic Mysteries we shall have the all-sufficient intercession of our Great High Priest. We need only kneel and watch and wait. The Sacrifice of Calvary is in those Mysteries. By placing that Sacrifice between the sins of souls and their reward, we have rendered aid which we ourselves will only know, when some day it will have been done for us. In Holy Communion we shall revive the union which bridges bodily separation and stabilizes the only bond which survives death. There will be tempests of anguish in the senses, but there will be peace in the soul, in the soul praying as well as the soul prayed for. All this demands concentrated effort. But it will be effort with a purpose. And the purpose will be not to console ourselves, but to help the soul departed. Perfect love casts out fear, and it casts out many other afflictions. One of the things it casts out is self-centredness, which is the source of all morbid tendencies of mind and heart.

It is all very simple if one is content to leave the faithful departed to the care of the Church. The Church receives us in infancy, ministers to us through life and bears us through death and beyond death. We must learn what is the mind of the Church. We can do this by observing and reflecting on the Church’s ritual. for the faithful departed. And the Church has her own way. That way is better and it is more seemly than the way of any individual. Funerals are not proper occasions for fanciful ideas. They are not occasions for favorite hymns. Favorite hymns are not usually adaptable for funerals. The reason for this is, that people in the midst of life are not inclined to favor hymns suitable for death. There are favorite psalms. But the Church has funeral psalms. There are favorite passages from the Bible, but the Church has passages suitable for funerals. An alleluia is a cheerful sound, but it is not suitable or seemly at a funeral. It is much, much better to leave all such matters to the Church. Next Sunday I shall write about the Church’s way of giving Christian burial.

Affectionately in Our Lord,

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