The Living Rite column explores what you will see, hear, taste, touch or smell while at church this weekend.
When I was a child, a family friend died. My parents wouldn’t let me inside the funeral chapel for the visitation, making me sit in a waiting room with my little brother. They didn’t want to scare us, I guess.
So, instead, I sat there wondering if they didn’t want me to in there because the dead person had become a skeleton or a mummy.
This week’s reading speaks so much about graves being opened that one might almost think we were near Halloween instead of Easter.
Scaring us isn’t the reason for readings about God opening graves or Lazarus’ death. Instead, even though we feel sorrow over our own mortality — even Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb — death is not the end.
Does anything in your church remind you of mortality? Maybe there’s a stained glass image of Lazarus or Martha, or of a crown of thorns. Most churches have Stations of the Cross, with images of Jesus’ death and tomb. Many churches have memorial plaques or windows with the names of long-gone parish members on them, or of veterans who died in war.
Under the other side altar of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay, is a statue of Christ in the tomb. Normally, it’s hidden from view. However, at times in the past, the altar’s small, oval windows were opened to reveal the dead Christ for Good Friday and Holy Saturday. (This led to rumors about a man buried under the altar.)
In some churches, real people are buried near the altar or in the undercroft below the altar. One might think of Westminster Abbey, where more than 3,000 people are buried, including kings and queens, prime ministers and even Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin.
However, you don’t have to go to London to find people buried in churches. For example, again in our cathedral, Bishop Francis Xavier Krautbauer — second bishop and designer of the cathedral — is buried near the north side altar.
In the St. Mary church site of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Oshkosh, you can find the grave of Fr. Roman Scholter, the pastor who designed the building, in the lower church. Also, many of our churches contain relics — often pieces of bone — from various saints.
These tombs, bones and various images of death are not meant to frighten us — or children — but to remind us that, even in death, God does not forsake us. Soon we will enter Holy Week, which leads to suffering and death — but does not end there. The Paschal Mystery of Christ reminds us that God did not leave Jesus in the grave, but raised him to new and eternal life. That is the promise the risen Christ now shares with each of us, especially whenever we contemplate our own mortality.
Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of multiple books.