Dying Well

10-15-2023Pastor's LetterFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

In a few weeks we will be in November when we traditionally remember the dead. In fact, we begin the month remembering all the saints whose faith and living merited them the Kingdom and we then remember All Souls, praying that the known and unknown dead may reach Heaven’s Gate. But before we get there, we would do well to consider our own dying. Specifically, how we die but not in the sense of the cause or the circumstance. Rather what condition will our hearts be in when we enter the last phase of our lives?

A few years back, it was reported that a well-known elected official who was coming to the end of his life stated that he did not want another well-known elected official figure attending his funeral. I don’t know whether he actually said that, or it was just chatty, tabloid journalism. But for the purposes of this letter, let’s posit is as true. I don’t make any judgements on this person but just use the example as something that can teach us a few things.

First, it is important to remember that a dead man has no rights. His estate might have rights but once dead you tend to lose control of what everybody does on your behalf. While it is true that you can communicate your final wishes to your loved ones, there is no way you can insure that they follow through. I’ve seen this lots of times, sad to say. While I highly stress you plan out your funeral as this helps your loved ones navigate the process still planning is all you can do.

Execution is left up to others. I had a coworker once who had an irrational fear of being buried with white shoes on (for some reason she despised white shoes) and every time she did something I didn’t like, I would kiddingly tell her that I was going to make sure she was buried in white shoes! You can’t orchestrate your funeral from the grave.

So, if in that planning process you start disinviting people to your funeral you might want to check if your heart has become bitter. You see dying is the time to have a heart filled with gratitude for the life you lived. One of the great temptations we often face is the impulse to keep an up to date account of harms received. It is a naturally human response to injustice, but the resentment it engenders becomes a spiritually toxic weapon of self-destruction. Bitterness, no matter how small will always occupy a disproportionate amount of space in your heart. It tends to consume your heart and push out any gratitude. That sets you up to die as a bitter, unforgiving person. And what legacy do you leave if you die a stingy, bitter person? Don’t miss a chance to teach others, even through your death, how to live and die as a gracious, generous person, who is bigger than the small mindedness of your foes.

I am frequently around those who are dying. I always tell them as they are surrounded by their family and friends, to be grateful for the life they lived and the difference they made, whether big or small. The problem is that if you have allowed bitterness or unforgiveness to take root, those roots can be long and deep and make the dying process anything but peaceful and happy.

I know all too well that lots of pain can be inflicted upon us by others during life. But holding on to that does nothing to the person who abused us, insulted us or demeaned us. But it does do significant damage to our hearts.

The time to start considering all this is now, not when you are planning your funeral. This means that if any corner of your heart is occupied by bitterness then you need to do some spiritual work. I always recommend praying for the person who harmed you by name. Pray for the them every day by name, asking God to bless them in every way that you wish to be blest yourself. You don’t have to be sincere, just start praying, God will purify your motivations over time. Then one day you will realize the resentment is gone and there will be more room in your heart for gratitude.

Planning your funeral is the easy part. Planning how to die well requires living well now.

Love, Fr. John B.