Saint Augustine was born in North Africa in 354. His famous baptism in Christ occurred in 387, for which he gives much credit to the prayers of his mother, Monica. The year after his conversion, Monica died. In his Confessions, Augustine describes the circumstances of her death, and he writes movingly about his grief.
Monica tells Augustine: “My son, for my part I find no further pleasure in this life….There was one reason, and one alone, why I wished to remain a little longer in this life, and that was to see you a Catholic Christian before I died. God has granted my wish and more besides, for I now see you as his servant….What is left for me to do in this world?”
Five days later, Monica fell ill with a fever, at times losing consciousness. Augustine and his brother, Navigius, sat at her bedside. At one point she awoke and said to them, who were speechless with grief, “You will bury your mother here.” Augustine describes how he could not respond, so choked up was he with grief. But his brother urged her to “hang on” until they got home to their own country. In response to this, Monica uttered her most famous words: “It does not matter where you bury my body. Do not let that worry you! All I ask is that, wherever you may be, you should remember me at the altar of the Lord.”
Monica was not only asking that they should continue to pray for her after she died. She was not merely concerned for prayers for the salvation of her soul. She was also, in effect, telling them that in the memento for the dead at Mass, she was coming into the closest possible relationship that characterizes the communion of saints. An item of the Creed, this communion refers to the bond that continues between the living and the “living dead.” It is a bond that is most powerfully strengthened in the mystery of the Eucharist.
Grief is a necessary aspect of continuity in a relationship in the communion of saints. It deepens our appreciation of the person who has died, it helps us understand things we had not realized before, and it takes us onto a new and more mature level of personal growth. Offering Masses for the dead—and being present when that intention is offered—is no idle exercise. It’s truly an act of faith in the continuity of a relationship in Christ (who is the same yesterday, today, and forever) between ourselves and our deceased loved ones. This is something that “money can’t buy,” as the saying goes—not the best coffins nor the most elaborate tombstones.