“Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die.” I remember hearing the chorus of a song with these words and they often come to mind when I consider the topic of death. Nobody will disagree that we will only be admitted to Heaven after we die, and while the prospect of being in Heaven is appealing, the getting there is not. Why are we so afraid of dying? To be sure, there are many reasons, and in this article, I would like to briefly address a few of them. Before I do so, let me first share some encouraging words from Our Lord himself.
In the context of the Last Supper, Jesus addressed the following words to his Apostles, words which the church often uses in her pastoral care of the sick and dying:
“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.” (John 14:1-4)
Jesus is making a promise to them and to us that he has a place prepared for us in Heaven. He desires for us to share eternal life with him, and he will never deprive us of what we need to get there. He will come to us, especially as we face death, to remind us of this and his other promises about what awaits us after we die. With that encouragement, let us address some of those fears.
First of all, we can have a fear of the uncertainty of death. We all know people (or have heard stories of them) who have died very unexpectedly. Thought to be healthy one minute, they are gone in the next. That is very unsettling because we are forced to admit that the same thing could happen to us. Jesus makes it clear that the end is unknown for each of us, so we must be prepared. And when we live in that constant state of readiness, we will not be caught off guard, but we will welcome that moment for it means his promise of our being in Heaven is about to be fulfilled.
Another fear we face is the finality of death. Once we have died, the story is over — or so we think. Even though we will no longer continue life in the way we know it here, life does not end with death. The first Preface for the Mass of Christian Burial sums it up beautifully: “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended.” Life after death is life lived to the fullest, while life here on earth, in comparison, falls far short of what awaits us.
Sometimes it is the prospect of pain that causes us to fear death. Again, we have heard of the terrible pain and suffering people undergo in the process of dying and that terrifies us. But once again, the Scriptures give us some good encouragement through the words of St. Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” (Romans 8:18)
Finally, we might struggle with a fear of being forgotten. We know from our own experience how easy it can be to forget about those who have passed away. We do not forget intentionally; it just happens as we no longer see them and have them as a part of our lives. If we think about it too much, that can really leave us with a sense of sadness. Once again, St. Paul has some helpful words for us to consider: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.” (1 Cor 13:12) In Heaven, we will know fully that we are known fully by the Father. Being aware of this will fill us with great peace, because our hearts are made for union with him, and when we see him face to face, any fear of being forgotten will dissipate as we rest in his loving gaze for eternity.
Just as there may be other fears we have regarding death, there are also numerous promises that the Lord gives to us in the Scriptures in response to those fears. In the end, we can find great hope in our belief that the Lord keeps his promises. So, if we remain faithful to him, we can be assured that when we die, he will not fail to keep his promise to us that we shall live with him forever in Heaven.
Your questions answered on dying and death
- Why pre-plan your funeral?
- What should you do when your loved one is dying?
- Why should you insist upon the Catholic funeral rites?
- What about cremation and where you should be buried?
- Whether it is yourself or a loved one, understanding what the Catholic Church teaches on these end of life questions can be critical for one’s soul.
Go to dio.org/funeral for easy to understand answers to several questions about dying, death, funerals, and burials.
Father Brian Alford is rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield and is director for the Office for Vocations for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.