This is the draught of an article I hope to submit to the Guardian. Open to comments on how it can be improved.
If religion did not speak to the deepest sighs and longings of the human heart then it would be as well not to speak at all. Of these sighs few are more profound than those offered up for the death of one we love. My father, William Hepburn, died earlier this year and since by tradition Catholics devote the month of November in particular to remembering our dead this November of 2011 becomes a special one for me . It is one of the examples in Catholic life where theological truths and natural human emotions combine in such a way as to produce the inner peace we all desire and the calm acceptance that what has happened has happened.
It is no coincidence that this time precedes Advent a liturgical season that prepares believers for light to appear in the midst of darkness. We move from the De Profundis of Psalm 129 "Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O Lord" to the anticipation of Isaiah 9 "The people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light: to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, light is risen". Outside the Church we bereaved ones are insistently urged to move on, to reach closure, not to be morbid. Within our faith family we have this time of the year where parishes unite around prayer and remembrance for the dead. It is not considered gauche or uncool to bring to mind those whose passing made us weep. Death is placed in a context not only of eternity but of community. We pray for each of the dead not simply for our own ones. The theological truth we celebrate is the Communion of the Saints. The Church consists not merely of those now alive on earth but of those alive to God in heaven and in purgatory, something marked out by the twin feasts of All Saints and All Souls on 1 and 2 November.
In particular the prayers we offer are for those souls still in purgatory. Whatever one may think of the theological basis for the doctrine of purgatory it offers a psychologically realistic parallel between those gone and those left behind. As we endure suffering after and because of their passing so to they suffer before reaching the goal of the beatific vision. We and they are in solidarity, a solidarity of both pain and hope. We have a promised land to reach but a desert to pass though before we arrive at it. And, again, it is a community event. We remember our dead together, we are on pilgrimage together and we shall rejoice together "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Going they went and wept, casting their seeds. But coming they shall come with joyfulness, carrying their sheaves." (Psalm 125 ).
We speak of those who have gone ahead as the "faithful departed". As a convert this raises an interesting not to say vital question. My dear father was not a Catholic. The customary alliance of hard line fundamentalists and militant new atheists will no doubt unite to suggest that the logical consequence of my belief system would thrust him into that third and much less popular destination of hell and so offering up prayers on his behalf represents either hypocrisy on my part or a lack of belief that any of this stuff is actually true. These are questions I faced and reflected deeply upon when my equally non-Catholic mother, Irena Hepburn, died in 1998. My instant response then was what it is now. My parents were always faithful to me and to virtue as they understood it. Selfless faithfulness is a product of love and, consciously or unconsciously, is therefore grounded upon God the faithful and loving. My prayers for them, and for any one else for whom I am asked to pray, are offered up in a perfect trust that love is never wasted and that He who is the fount of all love gladly receives back unto Himself each of His children who follow His model.