Six Words That Explain The Catholic View of Death

Six Words That Explain The Catholic View of Death October 14, 2014

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Remembering the Dead: Ancestors, Rituals, Relics. Read other perspectives here.

“Everything is going to be okay.”

These are the six words she said. And I believed her. Sharon Barrett has said this to me more than once since her husband (and my patient and friend), Dick, passed away last winter. “Everything is going to be okay.” Perhaps these simple but confident words best epitomize the Catholic view of death.

Before I became Catholic several years ago, I had little exposure to Catholic funerals. As I have grown close to aging patients and walked with them in their last days, I have had the deep honor and privilege of attending a few such services and have found them profoundly moving and ennobling. I have been stirred to sadness, inspiration and reassurance by the deeply reverent, yet wonderfully human experience of celebrating the life and entrusting the soul of a friend to God. After having this experience, it was hard to resist learning more about the Catholic process of remembering and burying the dead. And thanks to Dick, his wife Sharon and their adult children Vince, Anne, Mary, Cathy and Julie, I have been forever changed by what I experienced.

There are three parts to what is called the Catholic Order of Christian Funerals. As my priest would describe it, it is one prayer with three parts: the Vigil, the Funeral Mass, & the Committal. For the sake of this piece, I would like to alter the names to better fit what I saw or heard: Keeping Watch, Nourishment, & Pilgrimage. It was holy and beautiful to behold.

Keeping Watch (The Vigil)


“How many of Worner’s patients have made it out of hospice?”,

That was the question he posed with a puckish grin. But that grin would be fleeting as pain replaced it with a grimace. Dick was determined to be the first to be discharged from hospice: alive. And given that his self-anointed nickname was a well-earned “Iron Man”, few were inclined to doubt him. But his sickness was too advanced. His recovery was not to be. (For details of his illness and my role as his physician and friend, please see my previous post “Pax Tecum: My Patient, My Friend”)

After Dick asked his playful yet earnest question, the kindly hospice nurse leaned toward this larger-than-life man made smaller by his progressive frailty. She gathered herself, met his failing eyes and gently asked,

“Do you know why you’re here, Dick?”


“You are here to die.”

His brow would unfurrow and his wince would disappear if for only a moment. “Oh.”, he answered. Not necessarily surprised. Perhaps even a little relieved. After years of physical decline and difficult illness, Dick had fought the good fight – in fact – many, many good fights. But this time – this time – he could rest. The final battle would be won. Not by Dick, but by Christ. And all would be well.

And so began the Vigil.

Years had come and gone with Dick bodily assailed by innumerable medical problems. In spite of his remarkable recovery from one physical insult after another and his winsome attitude that “a setback is a setup for a comeback”, the insults multiplied. Like the mythical hydra, Dick found that as one problem was patched up several others would arise in its place. And now, the problems overwhelmed. It was time to rest.

And so the Barrett family, already so involved, would further attend to their ailing father. At the hospice where Dick had taken up residence, there was a continual stream of visitors. At times, the hearty shoulder grab from a grieving, yet exuberant friend would send Dick into a deeply pained spasm, but he never failed to appreciate the sentiment. One last Minnesota Gopher game would be on in his room for one of their greatest fans. In one of Dick’s moments of lucidity and hunger, he sent his son, Vince, to McDonald’s for a big cheeseburger. Vince recalls telling the server that this may be his father’s last meal so, smiling,he charmed “make it a good one & make it a double”. As the day would grow late and the stream of visitors would fall to a trickle, Dick’s lovely and long-suffering wife Sharon would, for one last time, climb into bed with her life’s love. To hold him. To feel him. To simply be near and love him as he prepared for his final journey home. Ask any of Dick and Sharon’s children what they saw in Sharon after these irreplaceably tender moments and, to a person, they would say, “She was glowing.” “Everything is going to be okay.” Dick peacefully passed away the next morning.

As it is described in the Order of Christian Funerals,

“At the vigil, the wider Christian community comes together as a liturgical assembly to keep watch with the family in prayer and find strength in Christ’s presence, turning to God’s word as the source of faith and hope, as light and life in the face of death.”

The Barrett family and friends had kept watch.

Nourishment (The Funeral)


I have been told that in the time shortly after Dick passed away, his family remained with him. They sang. They prayed. They shared the Eucharist – the Body of Christ – with the priest and one another. The sadness at the loss of their husband/dad was overshadowed by the joy of his new birth.

At the Funeral Mass, the casket was first blessed with Holy Water and covered with the white pall commemorating the baptism which brought the infant Richard “Dick” Barrett into the life and resurrection of Christ. The Paschal Candle was lit for the second and last time (the first was lit in his infancy at his new birth into life at baptism, the second was lit at his earthly death signifying a new birth into eternal life). Hymns were sung beautifully by this strikingly musical family. Scripture provided hopeful words of “consolation and strength”. Prayers suffused the entirety of the Mass. The centrality of the Mass, however, is the Eucharist. It is a joyful, sacramental moment – a “thin place” between man and God – where a deep communion is felt and a glorious feast is offered for the repose of the soul of Dick Barrett.

As the Order of Christian Funerals offers,

“At the funeral Mass, the community having been spiritually renewed at the table of God’s word, turns for spiritual nourishment to the table of the Eucharist.”

Nourishment. When we come to the Funeral Mass, we ache and we are hungry. But at the Lord’s table, we will be made whole and hunger no more.

Before long, the Final Commendation came and Dick’s casket was incensed as a profound and reverent silence ensued while the incense rose in a manner representing the soul rising to the care of Christ. “Everything is going to be okay.”

 Pilgrimage (The Rite of Committal)


Several months would pass (a delay due to winter’s frozen earth) and I would be invited to the Rite of Committal for Dick. It is a final earthly moment with the mortal remains of a friend and family member before burial. As the Order of Christian Funerals describes

“At the conclusion of the funeral liturgy, the procession is formed and the body is accompanied to the place of committal. This final procession of the funeral rite mirrors the journey of human life as a pilgrimage to God’s kingdom of peace and light…and marks the separation in this life of the mourners from the deceased.”

I would arrive at the cemetery a bit self-conscious feeling a bit undeserving of this intimate invitation. After all, who was I? A physician who cared for him, a friend to be sure, but this was close family comprised of members who were married to, learned from, grew up under and ultimately cared for this beloved person. What right did I have to walk with them on this final sacred part of their journey – their pilgrimage – with Dick?

But see, that is just it. It is a journey. It is a pilgrimage. And it is made up of a community of Christian brothers and sisters. As soon as I stepped out of my car, I was overwhelmed by the love and affection this wonderful family would show…to me. The Barrett’s taught me what this pilgrimage is all about. It is a journey where people move a bit slower, they touch each other with a handshake, a sincere squeeze of the arm or a deep embrace. It is a path where you look each other in the eye. Where silence is okay. Where crying is okay. Where there is no shame and weakness is our strength. It is an experience that is true. Simply true. And it reminds us, “Everything is going to be okay.”

I saw Dick’s wife, Sharon, the other day accompanied by her daughter Anne. They and their family are doing well. The family still laugh at the drawn out jokes Dick would tell or “the stare” that would tease some times and daunt at others. Sharon still requests Masses to be said for the repose of Dick’s soul. She finds herself lost in memories of Dick and conversing with her soulmate throughout the day. She knows he is in Heaven. God is good.

“We were born for eternity.”, Sharon tells me. And the first stage of this life is here on earth. And though Dick is joyfully with God right now, he is just barely on the other side of the veil from us. Bathed in the peace of Christ, he is waiting for reunion with his wife, his kids, his grandkids, his friends.

“We find ourselves taking up what Dick always said,’Everything is going to be okay.'” Sharon tells me. “He didn’t know the answers, but he was confident of God. Everything’s going to be okay.”

Indeed. I couldn’t agree more.

Permission was granted by Sharon Barrett and Anne Herman to write about issues pertinent to Richard “Dick” Barrett



Browse Our Archives