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10/27/2013 12:59:00 PM
Think on your death
Catholic News Service
The grave marker of a couple is illuminated with a candle as a full moon shines through clouds on All Souls' Day in 2009 at the cemetery of St. John Parish in Imperial, Mo.
Catholic News Service
The grave marker of a couple is illuminated with a candle as a full moon shines through clouds on All Souls' Day in 2009 at the cemetery of St. John Parish in Imperial, Mo.
Tom Sheridan


It is much too simple to say that everything I know about death I learned from Grey's Anatomy. Or M.A.S.H. Certainly, some media fare comes close to the truth about death. But it's not all there is.

Death -- like life -- is an intensely spiritual experience, just as it is intensely a physical and an emotional one. I know a lot about death from observing how others die. That's the shared experience of being a veteran reporter and a long-serving deacon. Both vocations are deeply involved with the cycle of life.

I've been pondering a lot about death lately. No, not because I'm dying, but rather because my wife and I have begun the process of preparing for it. It's good to prepare. Death is inescapable. None of us gets out of here alive.

Many of us wisely make physical and financial preparations for death. Still, making the faithful connection between living and dying sometimes eludes us. But that connection is there: Faith tells us how to live. It also tells us how to die. It tells us that faith has conquered death.

Preparing for death doesn't simply mean making funeral arrangements at a Catholic parish and cemetery, though that should be a part of it. Neither does it simply mean living a life of such holiness that heaven seems all but certain. While laudable, that's not a complete answer either. Preparation means some of both.

A reminder of mortality came into sharper focus just the other day. A close friend learned he has esophageal cancer. While he doesn't yet know his fate, it's another step on the road from living to dying. Though he and his wife are older than us, it's like looking into our future.

Ugh. Even as I write those words, it all seems so morbid. But it's not. Not really.

None of us likes to think about dying. Let alone talk about it. My wife and I are not yet really old, but we are no longer young. So we've been talking, while we can.

We've begun the process in the usual way, checking into options for funeral arrangements, pre-need plans, discussing cremation (yes, the church approves of cremation), cemetery opportunities and more. We've long had wills and the proper powers of attorney.

If you haven't done at least these tasks, you should. And frankly, we've dragged our feet.

But beyond paperwork, there is the spiritual part of dying. As Pope Francis has said, the church is concerned with both bodies and souls. The goal of life is not only to seek heaven but also to try to make certain that our passage through life has a value.

Perhaps that's why preparing to die also means preparing to say goodbye. Some do that by writing obituaries, others through letters to family and friends. Still others create legacies while alive that will keep their memories, if not their lives, fresh.

So we continue to plow through the emotional and spiritual nitty-gritty of thinking about how we'll say our goodbyes. There will be funerals, letters to children, and we're even checking to see how to get a brass band to play "When the Saints Go Marching In" at a community memorial service. That's what my wife Kathy wants.

The process of dying can be ugly. Or it can be celebratory. Grieving is natural, but it also can be an opportunity for remembrance. At heart, that's what we all seek. Death can claim our bodies, but we can live on in the memories of those who love us.

Our planning process won't be over soon, but it's a revealing exercise as we prepare, one day, to make our exit from life -- we surely hope -- to eternal life.

The writer is a former editor of The Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago and a deacon ordained for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.



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