Obituaries are generally the first thing I read in a newspaper. Often elegantly written they provide glimpses into other lives, some extraordinarily rich and strange, others merrily squandered.
The Telegraph on Tuesday obituarised Richard Pipes, the Russian scholar highly critical of Communism. Born in Polish Silesia in 1923 into “an assimilated upper-middle-class Jewish family”, the obituary provides an amusing quote by Pipes from his memoirs about his childhood:
I remembered my mother giving me a sandwich of rye bread covered with a thick layer of butter and radishes. As I was eating it in front of the house, the radishes slid off. Thus I learnt about loss. Next door lived a boy my age who had a rocking horse covered with a glossy hide. I badly wanted one like it. Thus I became acquainted with envy. And finally my parents told me that I once invited several of my friends to a grocery store and gave each an orange. Asked by the proprietor who would pay, I replied “Parents” Thus …I learnt what communism was, namely, that someone else pays.
We can all provide similar anecdotes of childhood and the life lessons it imparts, even if we are not as intensely reflective as Pipes. But what of the end of our lives? What remorse and regret come into play – even the desire to make recompense – as we recall the times when for example, this envy, never properly combatted, has come to sour our relations with other people?
Dwelling on memories of childhood, with all its intriguing pointers to the future, we are in danger of not preparing ourselves for the most important encounter for which our lives on earth are merely the preparation, our meeting with Christ after death, and the mercy or justice implied in that encounter.
Fr Wade Menezes CPM, a stalwart of EWTN broadcasting and a contributing writer for several US online Catholic journals, has written a straightforward Catechetical Guide to Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell (EWTN publishing) which is well worth revisiting. I describe his book as “straightforward” because he leans heavily on Scripture, the Catechism, the writings of the saints and the Popes rather than on modern gurus like Teilhard de Chardin (quoted approvingly by the Reverend Curry in his homily during the recent Royal Wedding) or Carl Jung, who would rather write about our “shadow side” than mention personal sin.
As Menezes reminds us, “We must strive to become eternity-minded”. If we truly live with this attitude, and recognise the importance of the sacramental life, especially regular Confession and Communion, we will face death without fear, which “can also be a wonderful witness to others as we live out our duty to evangelise.” St Joseph, he points out, is the patron of a happy death, a death prepared and ready, the opposite of that of Cesare Borgia, who was killed at the siege of the castle of Biano in 1507 and whose last words were “I die unprepared.”
The author includes several such anecdotes and quotations from the saints, such as this from St Francis of Assisi in his Canticle of the Creatures: “Woe to those who will die in mortal sin!” which shows him in a somewhat sterner light than his modern Green Party admirers would recognise.
The obituaries which cheer me most are those that include mention of the fact that the person mentioned “was sustained in his illness by his Christian faith” or was “a faithful Catholic all his life”. At the end, human reputation and worldly honours assume their appropriate place.