Death will come for us all and it is a cause for joy and hope.
As I entered the crypt beneath the church of the Immaculate Conception (referred to here in Rome as the “bone church”), I marveled at the chapel constructed of monk’s bones. It was built by the Capuchin order to offer their living members a place of holy meditation on death. I was spending that day with a group of high-school students from California, and at least the boys in the group seemed as enchanted by the chapel as I was. From the bone church we went to the famous “Spanish Steps”, and arrived just in time to see a large white limo pull up and deposit six scantily clad Italian soap opera stars on the side of the street. As they made their way down the steps towards the square, they were soon swarmed with a mob of young people and flashing cameras. “Wow”, said a few of the boys from Napa who were standing next to me, “those ladies need to visit the bone church and be reminded of what they will be in a few years.” “Yep, just a pile of bones”, chimed in one of their dads, “and maybe a few sacks of silicone too.”
Woody Allen once said, “It’s not that I am afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Why do we all have such a natural fear of death? We can start to understand this by remembering that in the beginning death was not really in the original plans. It is only after man offended God and disrupted nature by his sin that, as the Bible tells us “By the sweat of your face shall you get your bread to eat, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; for you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.” Also, we find comfort in control. Death is both the most certain part of our lives (since we all will someday die and there is no getting around it), and the most uncertain part. We do not know the day or the hour. Death could also stir up fear within us simply because it is unknown. We don’t know what it will be like to die, and as a wise preacher once said, “Many people will die today that have never died before.”
Maybe our fear of death is not as rational as we think. It is true that we don’t know what it will be like to die, but we do believe in a God that is able to bring good from apparent evil and to overcome death with life. It’s also true that we do not know the day or the hour, but then again nobody likes to work under the pressure of deadlines. Did you ever think that we might be able to enjoy this life a little more not knowing when it will end? Not knowing our expiration date is possibly not such a bad thing after all. As Christians, there is very little about death to be feared. If we have lived this life in friendship with God, we will simply continue living that friendship after death for all eternity.
As you exit the bone church, there is a plaque which says: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.” I believe that this is not only meant to be a reminder that death will come for us all, but also a cause for joy and hope. I say this not because I hope to have my bones on display someday, but rather because I hope to share the joy of eternal life with God. When we hold a Catholic mass for the deceased, the priest prays in petition to God the Father that after death “we hope to share in your glory when every tear will be wiped away. On that day we shall see you, our God, as you are.”
David Barton, LC studies for the priesthood in Rome.