The largest student organization at Saint Ignatius is the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry. Around five hundred young men sign up each year to participate in a Corporal Work of Mercy – Burying the Dead – that, because of the way it is practiced, is also a participation in the Spiritual Work of Mercy known as Comforting the Sorrowful.
It is one thing to carry a box to its final resting place. It is another thing to come into contact with those left behind and to express sorrow for their loss and to be in solidarity with those who are grieving. The true ministry of the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearers lies in that sharing of the common human experience of sorrow – a sharing that is so important for those who are most deeply feeling the loss of someone they love.
Anyone who has ever stood beside a casket and received the condolences of family and friends knows how difficult it is to be in such a position. From the other side, to slowly inch towards the grieving family, wondering what could be said to make them feel better is never an easy thing. People search for those words that will be the magic formula to stop the pain and sorrow. They search in vain. No words can ever suffice to bring those who mourn back to where they were before their loved one died.
This does not mean that all of these wonderful gestures are for nothing. One of my favorite living theologians, Michael Baxter, notes that our Faith encompasses traditions that give us something to do when we don’t know what to do. Wakes are essential and meaningful events, times when people can see all those who cared for their deceased loved one, and occasions to share in the universal human feeling of loss.
Whenever someone in the Saint Ignatius community dies and it is appropriate for students to attend the wake I always spend some time in class – especially with younger students – going over some of the ‘ground rules’ for behavior at wakes. First and foremost is the need to realize that whatever is said to the family will not and cannot change either the ontological reality of the situation or the emotional state of those who were closest to the person being waked.
As with so much in life, simpler is better. To express sorrow for someone’s loss and to offer prayers for the deceased and her or his loved ones is about as far as a ‘peripheral’ mourner should go. What should be remembered by the family is that you were among the line of those who waited, sometimes for over an hour, to speak with them and pray before the casket. I have been told on numerous occasions that what struck the family most was all those young men from Saint Ignatius, dressed in blue blazers and khaki pants, who took the time to show their respects for their departed loved one. It was their presence, much more than their words, that brought comfort.
In 2016 we buried both my mother and my father-in-law, and both of them were attended by the men of the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry. Certainly all in attendance were impressed by our young men, but for the family it was the personal contact with the pallbearers that left the longest lasting mark. Each student conveyed their condolences to the families and the last in line presented a card, signed by each pallbearer, to the surviving spouse. We were made to feel that serving at this funeral was of utmost importance to these Ignatians and that it was for them a great honor.
Comfort comes in many forms – a kind word, a hug, a home-cooked meal – but the most important aspect of any comfort is the presence of another human being. The act of being there is what will be held onto by the one comforted much more than any words that can be spoken in a time of grief. No matter what some may think, we are not created to be rugged individuals, we are made for communio, a term that we took from Latin and that we translate as “communion” or “community.”
But the root of the word speaks directly to the Spiritual Work of Comforting the Sorrowful. Literally, it is a military term for surrounding or fortifying with a rampart, so it refers to protecting those who are vulnerable in times of trouble. And so, to be in communion with the deceased is exactly what our pallbearers do as they surround the casket and carry the deceased to their final resting place, and it is what we do at a wake when we surround those who are sorrowful with our presence. Our communio brings comfort to the sorrowful.