In the Odyssey, Odysseus travels, as Homer would put it, wine-dark seas to the end of the known world. He travels to Hades and back (remember, it’s a Greek myth). He meets prophets and villains. He becomes a great hero, but finally, all he wants is to find his way back home. For decades his identity has been that of a wandering sailor and, even after he finally returns home, his old life creates obligations. Earlier in his travels, he’d met a soul in the underworld who begged, “Heap me a barrow on the gray sea’s shore…and fix in the mound the oar I rowed with my shipmates while I was alive.” This task Odysseus does for his friend, thus offering him a proper burial.
That’s not all, he has another errand with an oar. A prophet has told him to travel to a land far from the sea and plunge the oar into the ground like a winnowing fan. This is how Odysseus symbolically leaves his old life behind, dies to his past, and returns home to live out his remaining days. Eventually, he’s told, “death will come to you off the sea, a death so gentle, and carry you off.” Before Odysseus can make peace with living, he must first grieve the death of a friend and acknowledge his own impending death. He must accept that his true home is in the afterlife before he can cease wandering.
Death is a reality we prefer to ignore, but if we refuse to contemplate our end, we will find that we’re never set free to live. The Church understands this, which is why every November beginning with All Saints and All Souls, we remember death. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.
As a priest, I encounter death on a regular basis. I have often held the hand of a dying parishioner. It never ceases to break my heart. I admit that I struggle with it, often carrying the sadness with me. I try to deal with it by going on long, physically grueling runs. It’s a form of voluntary suffering, an attempt to alchemize the heavy weight of death into a lighter element that will lift from my shoulders. More importantly, I say prayers for the deceased. I truly believe they’re important, that God takes notice of the dying and the prayers we offer on their behalf. I ask for angels, who are with us always, to surround them and lift their Christian soul into the afterlife. I offer viaticum, hear a last confession, and give the sacrament of anointing along with the apostolic pardon. All of this is supremely important, a way of plunging our oar into the ground, and yet death still leaves a mark.
Here’s a startling truth, though. We need our dead. We need their wisdom and prayers. The Body of Christ isn’t complete without them. Don’t forget about them. They pray for us and we pray for them, this is how we as a family support each other until we finally make it home to heaven.
Father Rennier is parochial administrator of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.