The living and the dead

Fr. Shay Cullen

Fr. Shay Cullen

In the Philippines, death is accepted as a part of living, to be coped with as inevitable, postponed if possible; grief is short-lived but memories are for life. The cemetery on All Saints’ Day is a thriving celebration of life and family. On November 1st, there are gatherings around the family tomb with prayers being said, rosaries recited, thousands of lighted candles flickering and lighting up the gloom and casing all in silhouettes. Plastic flowers, picnics, singing and card games long into the night until dawn. They all pack up and go home when the vigil is done.

The rich live and die separate, apart from common humanity in life and in death. They have medium-sized enclosed tombs to massive mausoleums, the poor have a simple cross or a white painted tomb, the size of a coffin made of cement blocks. It is the time when we are called to remember the living and the dead. Dying is the painful end of living.

I have been in private cemeteries where peace and quiet reigned. I was surrounded by headstones, each summed up the life and death of people in a few short words as if they had never done anything in their entire lives. It was a lonely, sad and very solemn and reverential place, invoking what we fear most—death, and what unknown fate that awaits us beyond that final moment, if anything.

Yet the dead live on in our consciousness, in our memories and on a headstone, a marker with words lies, perhaps declaring to the world, that they loved and were well-loved, even if none of it is true.

The good people who died and who were loving and lovable true friends, parents, brothers or sisters, a hero perhaps, we can grieve for them, and recall the lost love, the once happy smiling face, the warm embrace that we can feel no more.

The great loss taken away by death are the days of fun and happiness that many shared together and were snatched away by untimely, tragic, painful, sudden or prolonged dying. It continues to wrench our hearts with the pain of loss and the reality that we too must die.

When we visit the graveside, we recall the missed opportunities to forgive, to ask forgiveness, to reconcile and make peace, to tell someone we loved them but were somehow blocked. We regret the time we did not go to them and hold their hand and care and help them. Death takes away all chances to make amends.

If we have cared and helped them, did our duty, loved them and supported them, then we have no regrets, we can smile and be content, be at peace with ourselves and them and smile knowing we were true and faithful to them. Their death holds no regrets for us.

If we failed them, we can repent and weep for them and for ourselves. Death is real, but we try to make it unreal, to gloss over the painful truth that one day we too will die and be no more, or will we?

Then we will ask how we lived, what can we leave behind? We can ask, was it a life lived for ourselves or for others. Have we served or been served, have given or have taken, to have kept or to have shared? Did we love and were we loved?

Life for most is precious, something to cling to, marvel at, rejoice in and enjoy to the full, sustain and protect and prolong it. To live a good life helping others is the most worthwhile of all and then we are always ready and content to face death.

For most people, it is much better to be, than not to be. So the wretched of the earth, the poorest of the poor, the so-called worthless outcasts, branded as burdens of society, living out impoverished painful lives still want to live. They have hope of better days to come.

The irresponsible and unrepentant rich can suffer from the thought of impending death and a guilty conscience after a selfish life with little help given to others in need. They too can repent and give back to the needy and make this a better world before they leave it.

It is compassion, love, and forgiveness of a heavenly Father that formed the heart of the message of Jesus of Nazareth. We can never know what the afterlife is, but if we believe, let it be based on a loving relationship with eternal goodness.


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