DPPL 259: Modern Aversion to Death

STA altar at night smallModern society fears and avoids death–we all know it.

259. “Hiding death and its signs” is widespread in contemporary society and prone to the difficulties arising from doctrinal and pastoral error.

My sense is that human emotion overrules what religion might teach about death and dying.

Doctors, nurses, and relatives frequently believe that they have a duty to hide the fact of imminent death from the sick who, because of increasing hospitalization, almost always die outside of the home.

And yet the dying often have a way of knowing and will show great peace and insight at the time of death.

It has been frequently said that the great cities of the living have no place for the dead: buildings containing tiny flats cannot house a space in which to hold a vigil for the dead; traffic congestion prevents funeral corteges because they block the traffic; cemeteries, which once surrounded the local church and were truly “holy ground” and indicated the link between Christ and the dead, are now located at some distance outside of the towns and cities, since urban planning no longer includes the provision of cemeteries.

Burial of the dead has become a business commodity. Open land within cities is more valuable for the living, if not for business interests. Vigils can be held in “neutral” locations–families are spared the burden of hosting gatherings. And even new parishes in the suburbs prize the “holy ground” of athletic fields. A cemetery has a professional staff that provides services few parishes can offer.

That isn’t to say the link between Christ and the dead isn’t weakened. But there are strong cultural factors that lack malice. For the Church, and especially the local parish, how does one restore old links or even find new ones?

How indeed do we engage death more directly?

Modern society refuses to accept the “visibility of death”, and hence tries to conceal its presence. In some places, recourse is even made to conserving the bodies of the dead by chemical means in an effort to prolong the appearance of life.

The Church speaks of “intolerance,” but I think more is at stake.


The Christian, who must be conscious of and familiar with the idea of death, cannot interiorly accept the phenomenon of the “intolerance of the dead”, which deprives the dead of all acceptance in the city of the living. Neither can he refuse to acknowledge the signs of death, especially when intolerance and rejection encourage a flight from reality, or a materialist cosmology, devoid of hope and alien to belief in the death and resurrection of Christ.

Economic exploitation: bad.

The Christian is obliged to oppose all forms of “commercialisation of the dead”, which exploit the emotions of the faithful in pursuit of unbridled and shameful commercial profit.

Other thoughts or observations?

Remember, the full document Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy is online at the Vatican site.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, post-conciliar liturgy documents. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to DPPL 259: Modern Aversion to Death

  1. Liam says:

    While we have the recent but “exotic” (that is, far away in reality, but close in our imaginations) example of Ebola – it’s not that long ago that we had many people dying in the United States whose remains were not infrequently unwanted. Remember, folks? In the urban core of Boston, Catholic churches don’t have churchyards for burial near the church – the Catholic churches postdate the era when churchyards were common. But there are older, Protestant, churches with churchyards or with parsonage gardens where cremated remains could be discreetly interred while finessing the municipal health code red tape. I can certainly remember people having recourse to such interment when their families had disowned them or other refused to accept their remains. And I would say there were some brave mortuaries that did a lot of work without much profit other than to cover the expenses of their staff and fixed overhead. In my later work as a member of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, we did have a connection to a funeral home that would cover costs that way as well; that said, funeral homes are a legitimate business and people who do work are entitled to reasonable compensation. If dioceses, parishes or intentional communities of the faithful wish to create non-profit alternatives, they can try, but there’s a considerable amount of regulation that has to be complied with. Just go try and be buried only in a shroud; in most places, it’s hard to get done by duly authorized hands.

  2. Todd says:

    Liam, thanks for the correction on the absolute legitimacy of funeral homes as businesses. That said, there are notable examples of public pressure on folks who try to promote, for example, Trappist caskets, among other items subsidiary to funerals. I find myself in the middle quite often: parishioners who grumble or seriously worry about costs, and funeral home staff who provide fine examples of devoted service and ministry.

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