What do Catholics Believe about Death?

What do Catholics Believe about Death - "Welcome Home" print by Danny Hahlbohm
Welcome Home print by Danny Hahlbohm

When my husband’s aunt died, I was asked to select something to read for her non-denominational memorial service.  In preparation, and also because this is the Year of Faith, I turned to the Catechism to rediscover what Catholics believe about Death.

The Catechism contains a great many references to Death; just the broad index headings alone covered:  “after death, as limitation of earthly life, Christian dealings with death, Christian interpretation of death, death of Jesus, and separation of soul and body.”

Christian Dealings with Death

First I looked up Christian dealings with death, which focuses on Respect for the Dead, addressing that “the dying should be given attention and care to help them live their last moments in dignity and peace.” [CCC 2299]  “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.” [CCC 2300] and “Autopsies can be morally permitted for legal inquests or scientific research. The free gift of organs after death is legitimate and can be meritorious.” [CCC 2301]

Our loved one is being cremated, according to her wishes. I’d always thought that the Catholic Church was against cremation, but apparently “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.” [CCC 2301]

Catechism for Kids

Considering how many references are made to Death, I opened up the YouCat, a recent publication of the Catholic Catechism in a Q&A format targeting young people. Here I found:  

How does Christ help us at our death, if we trust in him?

Christ comes to meet us and leads us into eternal life. “Not death, but God will take me” (St. Therese of Lisieux.) [1005-1014, 1016, 1019] Someone who dies, trusting in God and at peace with men, and thus without serious sin, is on the way to communion with the risen Christ. Our dying makes us fall no farther than into his hands. A person who dies does not travel to nowhere but rather goes home into the love of God, who created him.”

I love the beautiful idea that in dying we fall into Christ’s waiting, outstretched arms;  that our loved one does not simply cease to exist, but is resting at home in the love of God, carried there by Christ. It has a beautiful imagery to which all people, young and old, can relate.

Dying in Christ Jesus

I turned back to the CCC referenced by the YouCat entry, Dying in Christ Jesus.  “Death is the end of earthly life.” (CCC 1007) “Death is a consequence of sin.” (CCC 1008) and “Death is transformed by Christ. “(CCC 1009). 

What’s that? Death is a consequence of sin?  Reading on, I learn that the church teaches us “death entered the world on account of man’s sin. Even though man’s nature is mortal, God had destined him not to die. Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin.”  (CCC 1008)

This sounds so punishing, the concept that the original sin of Adam and Eve brought us suffering and death not original to God’s plan for us?  It’s almost shameful.  Still, fear not, because “Jesus, the Son of God, freely suffered death for us in complete and free submission to the will of God, his Father. By his death he has conquered death, and so opened the possibility of salvation to all men.” (CCC 1019)

Because of Christ, Christian death has positive meaning.” (CCC 1010)  “In death, God calls man to himself.” (CCC 1011)  “Death is the end of man’s earthly pilgrimage, of the time of grace and mercy which God offers him so as to work out his earthly life in keeping with the diving plane, and to decide his ultimate destiny.” (CCC 1013)

In the Roman Missal, Preface of Christian Death we read, “Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.” (CCC 1012)

I am going to prepare a place for you

Upon reading this passage, I knew that I should read from the Holy Gospel According to John 14: 1-6:

“Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way.” Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

At our death we fall into the arms of Christ Jesus, who waits to carry us home to the love of God.

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Shelly Henley Kelly