China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2009/Nov

Praying for the dead during November

In Hong Kong, nothing depresses the resale value of an apartment as much as a death inside those rooms. If a former occupant goes to sleep peacefully one night, but fails to wake up the next morning, that hurts the value somewhat. However, a suicide or a murder is the kiss of death for the market value of any property.

One real estate agent here has found a way to profit from such tragedies. He buys such apartments cheaply and resells them later at the going price to Christians or foreigners.

Afraid to die

To ask an obvious question, why are people afraid to die? The reasons have not changed in thousands of years: a painful process of dying, losing earthly possessions, never seeing family and friends again, fear of either punishment after this life, or else fear of total extinction. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) quotes scripture and mentions the ideal attitude for a believer, “when the day comes, serenely facing death” (CCC, 1473). That is easier said than done.

Loneliness is another hard part of dying. Relatives and friends gather at the bedside to pray, hold the hand of the dying person, or at least keep vigil. Hospice care is rather new in China. One recent news article detailed the palliative care provided to ease pain and the need to have someone present during the patient’s final hours. However, nothing was said about praying aloud for the dying.

Afraid of the dead

Why are people afraid of the dead? Catholics distinguish sins of omission (failing to help people in need), from sins of commission (actively doing something harmful). Either way leads to guilt. No one wants to be reminded of failing to help in time of need, especially when there is no further opportunity to lend a helping hand. Even worse is to admit having acted unjustly toward the deceased.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” goes the old saying, so people stay away from cemeteries and do not mention death if at all possible.

Chinese go to the cemetery in the daytime. People place flowers, candles, incense sticks, cigarettes, alcohol or food on the tomb and depart before sunset. For practical reasons, relatives of the deceased need daylight to pull weeds, sweep the dust off the stones and repaint. Yet no one would dream of lingering in a cemetery after dark.

No one wants to get married on Qing Ming (清明), usually April 5 or 6, during the seventh lunar month, the Ghost Month (鬼月), or on Chongyang (重陽), the ninth day of the ninth moon. In the mainland, Chongyang is being reinterpreted as a day to honour senior citizens, but it will be generations before people choose it as their wedding day.

Pregnant women are not supposed to go to a wake, burial or cremation. That would be bad luck for both mother and child. Showing reverence for the ancestors is one thing; staying too long in their presence is another. Confucius “paid respect to spiritual beings, while keeping them at a distance.”

There are enough strange stories from every part of the world to indicate that something more than psychology is at work. Many people laugh at the idea of ghosts, but ghosts sometimes have the last laugh.

Teachers and science books in some countries tell students that there are no ghosts. Skepticism is not a modern invention. Horatio, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet four centuries ago, did not believe a ghost sighting. Today’s students still appreciate the next line of the play: “There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

CCC, 2116 forbids contacting the dead, looking for omens or going to spirit channellers, since these “contradict the honour, respect and loving fear that we owe to God alone.”

Comforting the living and the dead

Faith assures us that we do not die alone. Catholics believe in the Communion of Saints (CCC, 1479). This includes the saints in heaven, the Blessed Virgin Mary, well-known saints over the centuries and, God knows, how many millions and billions of others. November 1 is the Feast of All Saints. Then there are the Poor Souls in Purgatory. Purgatory is a process of purification before entrance into the full glory of heaven. Those in purgatory can benefit from intercessory prayers from both the saints in heaven and from people on earth (CCC, 1030-1032).

Purgatory is not a medieval torture chamber, but it is not fun either. Catholics do well to pray for a “happy death” for themselves, meaning to be in right relationship with God and neighbour at the end of this life.

After being banned in China for many years, public ceremonies for the dead are common again. Buddhist monks and sisters stand during the wake and chant, and Daoist clergy perform their rituals for the safe journey of the soul.

These rituals are meant to help the deceased until the next reincarnation. The survivors also are a little fearful, or maybe quite fearful, of bad luck if they do not help their dearly departed.

Every prosperous family wants an ornate tomb. This conflicts with official regulations to save farmland by banning burials. A few old or sick people have been abducted and murdered in order to provide a substitute body for cremation. The crematorium staff “forgets” to take a close look at the corpse, and the well-off person is buried. Such a criminal case would make a scary movie for Halloween.

In the Chinese countryside, after a Catholic funeral Mass, there is a procession to the cemetery, often with a brass band and the priest offers prayers at the graveside.

Death in other times and nations

In Thailand, offerings to hungry ghosts are placed on top of a tower, or in baskets on the ground. Everyone leaves the site before dark. To eat those offerings is to ask for horrible misfortune.

The Aztecs in old Mexico observed a Day of the Dead in May. After 1519, the Spanish conquerors were able to shift the date to November 2, but they could not eliminate the old traditions that make fun of death.

Today, sugar is moulded into bite-size skulls and decorations show skeletons playing a guitar, dancing and enjoying life. This is an attempt to transform the pain and loss of death into the hope of transcendence and communion.

In The Philippines, families go to the cemetery to play cards, eat, drink, sing and dance. Then they light candles at nightfall, praying and keeping vigil as November 2 dawns.

All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days

Throughout Church history, newly converted peoples have been adept at blending elements of their old belief with their new faith. Catholic clergy could not eliminate such mixing, so they tried to put a Christian spin on it.

Perhaps the most famous example is the Celtic festival of Samhain on November 1, when the veil between the spiritual and material worlds is removed. Beginning the previous evening, October 31, ghosts come to visit. Is there a nicer term for ghosts? Yes, the “hallowed ones,” or “holy ones” in modern English. Likewise, Chinese use “good brothers” (好兄弟) as a euphemism for ghosts. The night of October 31 is for all the holy ones.

In 834, the Roman Church fixed November 1 as All Saints’ Day. It is a celebration of the countless number of souls who have passed from death to everlasting life. As the first preface of Christian Death says, “The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality.” The solemn blessing at the end of that Mass is reassuring, “To us who are alive, may he grant forgiveness, and to all who have died, a place of light and peace.”

“All Hallows’ Eve” has been shortened to Halloween, which is now a profitable day for makers of candy and costumes. Consumerism has trivialised the dead.

Coming after All Saints’ Day, November 2 is a logical choice for All Soul’s day. The earliest scripture reference to praying for the dead is Maccabees 12:38-46. The second Mass of All Souls Day begins with the antiphon “Give them eternal rest, O Lord, and may your light shine on them forever.”

To biblical fundamentalists, all of this is syncretism and from the devil. But to Catholics, pre-Christian beliefs contain “seeds of the word,” that is, an anticipation of the gospel. The best of the old can be incorporated into the new. Today we call this inculturation.

New answers to old questions

About 1,300 years ago, a missionary crossed the Rhine River to preach the gospel to the German tribes. A local king invited him to dinner one night then asked him to speak. Suddenly, a bird flew in through a windhole – a hole in the wall to let wind and sunshine in and to let smoke go out. Say it fast and it becomes “window.” The queen had a few glass beads, but no one had sheet glass to cover the windhole. So they used drapes instead. The bird flew back and forth a couple of times, pushed the drape aside and disappeared out the windhole.

A bird flying at night? Was it afraid of a cat? Or was it a supernatural omen? An elder of the tribe said to the king, “Your majesty, human life is like that bird. We come from a dark place, move back and forth in the light for a short time, then we exit and return to the darkness. We do not know what came before this life, or what will come after. If this new teaching can instruct us, then I urge your majesty to give this visitor a careful hearing.”

The king listened, asked questions, and later he and his whole court were baptised.

Blessing a troubled place

Once the dead are at rest, the living can go on with life. If any reader of China Bridge suspects that their residence has been “psychically impacted” by a tragic death, please contact a priest to arrange to bless the house or apartment.