On Tuesday/Wednesday I undertook a round trip to the North West (civilisation!) for a family funeral. My mother was one of eight sisters, and the lady whose funeral I was attending was the last of the eight. She died at the ripe old age of 91, after many years of severe visual impairment and, more recently, a lengthy period suffering from dementia.
One of the interesting things I learnt about my aunty on Wednesday was the strength of her Catholic faith, and how much this was part of her ordinary culture. I heard anecdotally of wedding dresses being converted into vestments before the couple had returned from their honeymoon. The aside comment added to this, however, was that she would have probably accepted them being made into cricket whites if the materials had been suitable - in their younger days, theirs was very much a cricketing family. Another whimsical comment was about St Peter having to make sure the kettle was on when my aunty arrived at the pearly gates - she being a great tea drinker. Champagne and pasties were order of the day at the get together afterwards - this being all but a family "tradition".
My aunty had four children (my cousins), two daughters who lived nearby and two sons who were further away. They have cared for their mother over many years, first when she was living at home and then, more recently, when she was being cared for in a nursing home. During the last few years, I think they arranged for their mother to have a visit from at least one of them almost every day. This visiting was not easy, given their mother's illness.
Listening to the homily at the funeral Mass, which briefly referred to my aunty's death as being in some way a relief, my mind went on to a completely different track. I thought first of an idea of Cardinal Barragan, of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral of Health Care. He observed a year or two ago that the person who is mentally ill is a faithful image of Christ, and not in some way a damaged image of Christ. This is because their suffering and helplessness images that of Christ in his agony in the Cross. Seen in this way, the life of someone who is mentally ill should be seen as being precisely that - a life that has a positive value.
The second thought I had was that my cousins probably did not think that they were doing anything special in the way that they visited and supported their mother over a very long period of time. It appeared to be taken for granted that that was what they would do. The only implict reference to it during the homily was in describing the death as a kind of relief, though that was not an explicit reference. Perhaps this caring within a family is something that we should not take for granted, and should celebrate more than we do. In a practical way, it is a recognition of the life of the one who is visited as being precisely that - life, and a life that, though it is "lived" in an imperfect way, is nevertheless life that has a positive value.
In the context of the funeral Mass, this double recognition of life amidst the mortality of earthly existence is fulfilled in the belief that the body of the one who has died will rise again to eternal life in heaven. It is this belief in the resurrection of the body that gives meaning, not only to the dying of the person, but to the caring given during the days, months and even years leading up to the death. Whilst there is certainly a very human sadness to be recognised, perhaps priests preaching at funerals could present more positively the continuity of the recognition of life through illness and death to eternal life.
Eternal rest grant to her O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace and rise again in glory. Amen.