or The Curate's Egg
Embracing Sister Death
Afriend of mine told me recently that he doesn't like it that I write about death so often; it depresses him. But the life of a priest often brings me close to death; As a layman it was remote and hidden and therefore terrifying. I would almost say that as a priest I am learning that death has a human face. I therefore make no apologies for writing about what St Francis called "Sister Death" again.
I was in the presbytery during the family Mass. There had been the usual series of Sunday morning phone calls. These are more or less always requests for information and these were no exception. Do you have a baptism this afternoon and is there somewhere to park? What time is the next Mass? When is the church open?
I was on the point of closing the front door behind me to go and greet the people coming out of Mass when the phone rang again. It was the local police control room. The operator explained that the police had broken into a flat because its elderly resident had not been seen for a couple of days and was not answering his door. They had found him dead. His family had asked for a priest to perform the last rites. I explained that I would come and say prayers over the body, but that the last rites were something different; they were for the living.
I took details and collecting my stole, my ritual and my holy water I got into the car. I found the place without much trouble; there were two police cars outside, and five officers filling the hallway of the small flat. One of them briefed me about the circumstances of how the man had been found. I was slightly apprehensive, I must confess, not quite knowing how he would took and how I would feel. We opened a door into the living room. The dead man is hunched over in a chair, his knees covered with a blanket, his white hair slightly tousled as though he were asleep; and yet he is so obviously not a person asleep, but a dead thing, the remnant of something from which the life has departed. His three sisters stood around, sweet and gentle Irish ladies, obviously deeply shocked. And yet their first reaction on finding him had been to call for the priest. As I put my stole round my neck by some instinct learnt long ago in Ireland, I suspect, as one they knelt down around the chair.
Suddenly there was a breath of something else in the room other than death and fear and shock.
The policemen withdrew discreetly, prepared w let another, different set of procedures from their own take precedence. With these three ladies gathered in the name of Jesus the comfort of faith was here. I felt it; as a fellow human called to find a man dead, hunched in his chair I felt shock and sorrow. But now I was a priest I knew what I had to do, and it was easy to do it because there were people relying on me and because I did it in a power not my own.
I touched the dead man and made the sign of the cross on the crown of his head where some 80 years before a priest would have anointed him with chrism as part of his baptism. I sprinkled the lifeless body with holy water, as a reminder of that baptism, in which he was given the pledge of eternity. The body is cold to the touch; no point in giving absolution. I pray the prayers for the dead. It is peaceful and healing when the sisters join in the De Profundis and the Hail Holy Queen. There is great faith in this family to staunch the shock.
After we have prayed we talk a little while; some of it the ridiculous small talk that also eases the burden of so much reality. They are from the parish where I went to school and their niece teaches there. Their brother lived alone, had no family but them. There is little I can say they need a police doctor and a rigmarole of procedure before they will know how or why. It does not look suspicious to my untrained eye; it looks like an old man who has slipped away in his sleep. But I have done and said all I need to; the Church's procedures are simple and to the point and now the whole Church is interceding for the poor man.• Though he died alone, in human terms, faith says he was not without his Guardian Angel and the intercession of St Joseph and the saints in heaven.
I return to celebrate the midday Mass. The Sunday gospel has just acquired a new resonance. "Do not be afraid, the hairs on your head are numbered". No, I don't think I go on about death too much. For, as St Francis reminds those who have been baptized into Christ, this "second death" can do us no harm.