November opens with All Saints Day, which invites us to fix our eyes on heaven and live in a way that leads to eternal joy. All Souls Day, on November 2, is when we remember all those who have died in Christ; the Church encourages us to offer them the support of our prayers throughout this month.
With all its reminders that we and those we love are mortal, November can be a disconcerting time. Its uncomfortable to think about death, especially our own death. But among the victorious saints we celebrate on November 1, there is a fatherly figure who can help us prepare for and make a peaceful transition from this earthly life. This is St. Joseph, special patron of the dying.
The Happy Death. The reason why Joseph is qualified to play this role is movingly portrayed in a large statue at the Shrine of St. Joseph in St. Louis, Missouri. It shows him on his deathbed, with Jesus and Mary by his side. The mood is grave. Though Jesus is the savior of the world, his family is about to taste the pain of separation; death is not a friend but an enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Mary leans toward Joseph, her hands clasped, her expression mournful. (How often we remember her as the sorrowful mother, forgetting that she was also a sorrowful widow.) As for Joseph, he is pointing to himself, eyes upraised as if seeking reassurance. Jesus supplies it. Tenderly supporting Josephs head with his left arm, he lifts his right hand in a blessing over the man he called father.
It is the best of good deaths, the death we all desire. No man or woman ever had such a privilege as that of dying in the company of Jesus and Mary, observed Francis Filas, S.J. No deathbed scene could ever have been attended by witnesses who were more consoling. It has been logical, then, to ask St. Joseph to intercede for us that we, too, might imitate his death by breathing our last in the friendship of Jesus and Mary.
Reasonable Assumptions. You wont find Josephs death described in your Bible. He makes his last appearance at the finding of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52). After that, Joseph is mentioned only indirectly (for example, in Matthew 13:55). Luke does imply, however, that when twelve-year-old Jesus returned obediently to Nazareth, he was settling in for the long haulfor years of increasing in wisdom and grace under both Joseph and Marys supervision (Luke 2:52).
The most reasonable conclusion is that Joseph was living for most of the hidden Nazareth years but died before Jesus began his public ministry. Otherwise, why no mention of Joseph among the Cana wedding guests (John 2:1-2) or with Mary and the other relatives who showed up when Jesus was teaching his disciples (Mark 3:31-32)? Why, if Joseph were alive, would Jesus have spoken from the cross to entrust Mary to the beloved disciple (John 19:26-27)?
Assuming that Jesus was still living at home when Joseph died, he most likely took charge of the funeral and burial arrangements. In his culture, this was a sons special responsibility toward his parents. Quite possibly, Jesus himself washed Josephs body, anointed it with oil, and wrapped it with spices (one day, non-family members would perform these services for Jesus: Acts 9:37; Matthew 26:12; John 19:40).
Burials in the ancient world normally took place very quickly, on the day or the day after death. Relatives and friends would have gathered at Josephs home and placed his body on a wooden stretcheranother poignant note. Joseph and Jesus had probably filled orders for many a bier in their workshop. The corpse was carried to a gravesite outside the village. Vocal lamentation being very much a part of this culture, it was surely not a quiet crowd (Acts 8:2; Matthew 9:23). Josephs funeral procession was just the kind that Jesus would later encounter and be moved by in the town of Nain (Luke 7:11-14).
Were any priests present? What prayers, eulogies, and blessings were said along the way and at the burial place? With no reliable description of first-century customs to go by, all we can reasonably hold is that some sort of praying took place and that Jesus played the key part, as would befit a firstborn son. We may not know exactly what services this entailed, but we can be sure that Jesus performed them for Joseph with the greatest love.
Now and at the Hour of Our Death. It was in the seventeenth century, during the last violent outbreak of the plague in Europe, that St. Joseph became especially known as patron of the dying. Faced with the prospect of sudden death, many people urgently desired help for dying a good death.
The Jesuits met this need by holding Joseph up as a model of someone who died well because he was close to Jesus. To provide guidance for realizing this goal, they founded the Good Death Society and wrote books like The Art of Dying Well, by cardinal and theologian St. Robert Bellarmine. The Jesuits message was always the same, says Fr. Michael Malone: Closeness to Jesusthrough frequent reception of the sacraments, prayer, and good worksis the surest way of attaining peace in this world and eternal joy in the next.
In our day, however, and most especially in America, medical advances and popular culture work to keep thoughts of mortality at bay. When the subject of ones death does arise, there is much talk of how to tame, manipulate, or even engineer it. In a whimsical New York Times article, David Brooks predicts that this take-charge tone will only increase as the baby boomers enter their prime perishing years. They will turn dying into a form of self-expression . Theyll say things like, I dont want to just die; I want to claim ownership of my death, and theyll start buying self-actualizing books with titles like, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Dead People.
Such approaches only mask the deep-seated fear of death that all human beings experience. Only Jesus, who holds out the promise of eternal life through his death and resurrection, can calm our fear.
Overcoming our misguided notions, facing and preparing for death in a Christian way, trusting God as the Author and Giver of life from beginning to endfor all of this and more, we need the help of the Holy Spirit. And perhaps more than ever before, we also stand in special need of an end-of-life guide and intercessor.
St. Joseph, patron of a happy death, stands ready to meet that need. If we ask him, he will help us to see past the fear and confusion that surrounds us and discover what it really means to die well. Together with Mary, he will intercede for us in our final hour. He will help us to face death in a way that gives glory to God.
Comfort of the afflicted, pray for us.
Hope of the sick, pray for us.
Patron of the dying, pray for us.
Terror of demons, pray for us.
Protector of holy Church, pray for us.
taken from the Litany of St. Joseph