I was chatting with a once-Catholic-now-Protestant friend about a Catholic funeral he had attended. "It was just a Mass!" he exclaimed, as through that was a problem. What it came down to was that he had expected a eulogy -- for this to be more of a memorial service than "just" a Mass. I explained that in Catholic way of death, there are many moments of interaction with the deceased and with the process of death -- starting when death approaches, through the death itself, to preparations for the funeral, the wake, the funeral Mass and finally, to the committal, the collation dinner and beyond. Some Catholic death rites don't have a eulogy, some do, and many place it it various locations -- the wake, the Mass, the committal or even the collation.
But I surprised myself when I heard myself talking about our view of the time after death. Maybe the Spirit was speaking through me to my friend and to myself.
Catholics don't see our relationship with the dead as severed completely by death. We (as do many other religious people and, I suspect, even atheists) continue to think our our departed loved ones as part of our lives. They are in our memories, of course. But that's the least of it. They are also the ones to whom we speak or to whom we pray for guidance and support. And, perhaps uniquely among religions, we pray for them.
The Catholic teaching about Purgatory has come in for its share of dings in the last few decades. But there is one sense, at least, that makes it useful. It is that the departed soul's journey toward holiness is not over. That there is more left to do. That there is more that can be done.
In the old days, we would pray for the soul's quick departure from Purgatory, as though only our prayers could push souls closer to God and into Heaven. This is problematic for a few reasons. Does a popular, beloved or well-known person get pushed out of Purgatory faster than one with few or no friends? Is Purgatory populated with crusty, unloved old timers who have no hope of getting on the fast track to Paradise? Seems not to accord with a God who is All Good, does it? And doesn't the soul have to do the work (with the help of God's grace) of approaching holiness -- just as we do one earth?
So if we pray for them, then why? One reason might be an opportunity for us to meditate on the true nature of God. For Catholics can see God as a being whose mercy and solicitude extends beyond death. Where others worry that a person's earthly deeds are all that matter, and that the home run derby of holiness ends at the moment of death, we see it extending indefinitely. The God of boundless love continues to work with souls -- even with the most twisted and recalcitrant, I'd wager -- far beyond the time when he should (by human standards) stop caring. But how can an All Loving God and Father ever stop caring? Why should death stop his care? Can human being top God in their love for the departed?
When we pray for the dead, it is to support and encourage them in their journey home toward God. To help them see what must be shed -- hatred, jealousy, pettiness -- that was not shed in life. And to take on what was not or could not have been taken on in life -- kindness, courage and largeness of heart.