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The circle of life and death

The sign of a great movie or an important book is its ability to call us back. Much to my family’s chagrin, I can watch certain movies over and over on a continual loop. Books are the same way. I recently re-read “Great Expectations “for the umpteenth time. Even knowing the big reveal in the climatic chapters did not deter me from gleaning new insights from old pages or just enjoying the beauty of the prose and artful characterizations.

Another book I own, and one with countless dog-eared pages and underlined passages, is G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy.” With the trivializing of death that comes with Halloween behind us, we now move on to November, where death takes its rightful place as the reminder of our own mortal selves, with the hope that it will spur us on to contemplate our immortal destinations.

Whether it was divine intervention or happenstance, this past All Hallows Eve coincided with me revisiting chapter four of “Orthodoxy.” And there, in faded print on yellowed pages, was a passage I had long ago double underlined: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.” Chesterton called it the “Democracy of the Dead.”

Last year, “thanks” to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vatican extended the period for gaining an indulgence for the dead by visiting a cemetery. As in 2020, we have the entire month of November to participate in this different kind of democracy. 

I took advantage of the generous extension last year and visited my parents’ graves. I had made such pilgrimages before, but last year was the first time with this specific indulgence in mind. Why it took me that long to do this is another exposé on my chronic ability to procrastinate. But since time for me and time for my parents in eternity are not compatible, as far as they are concerned, I may have been early with the indulgence.

Visiting cemeteries helps put all those “celebration of life” funerals into perspective. Death is serious business, as it is so intimately tied to the Fall and sin. My parents had flaws, but they died nestled squarely in the bosom of the Church, in the sacraments, and with an undying faith in the promise Jesus made. To think too much about whether my parents had what it took to stand before the beatific vision is not good for peace of mind. I can leave that all in God’s hands and redouble my efforts for my own journey. 

The Church comes to our rescue once again with the profound and foundational teaching of purgatory. It may not be pain free, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

And we get to participate. I am elongating my cemetery grand tour to four locations in North Hollywood, Orange County, Culver City, and San Fernando. I have put together a Who’s Who, or in this case, Who Isn’t Anymore, of my closest deceased loved ones. I will mention each by name and, thanks to the internet, I have a more robust set of rubrics for the indulgence I seek. It will be good for my soul — and it might have an impact on the souls of those I loved; it’s a win-win.

When I did just one cemetery last year, I took my then 2-year-old grandson along with me. It was a Saturday, I was “in charge” that day, and he likes to go wherever I go anyway, even if it was to a graveyard. 

As I stood over the graves of my mother and father and prayed in silence, my precious little boy, with absolutely no coaching on my part, knelt down at my mother’s grave marker. There was a little overgrowth and dirt on it. He began to gently brush the dirt away. 

I was dumbstruck. I don’t know what possessed me, but I dug my phone out of my pocket and took a picture. It has become one of my prized possessions.

I will bring my now 3-year-old grandbaby with me on this extended tour. Who knows, we may be at the beginning of a beautiful tradition in every sense of the word. 

And some day in the future, maybe he will be on his own in a cemetery praying for an indulgence for somebody else looking for the light at the end of a tunnel. Call it “life” insurance.

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