Bury the dead

One of the Corporal Works of Mercy is burying the dead. That might not seem like such a big deal to us, but historically it sometimes has taken a lot of courage to bury the dead.

In the Old Testament book of Tobit, Tobit’s life is threatened because he dares to defy the civil authorities of the pagan land (Nineveh) where he lives in exile. Against their laws, he goes out and buries the bodies of Israelites who had been murdered on the public streets and had been left to rot.

In the New Testament book of Revelation (11:8) “two witnesses” to Christ are slain in the “great city, which has the symbolic names ‘Sodom’ and ‘Egypt,’ where indeed their Lord was crucified.” Their bodies are left out on the street, but after three-and-a-half days “a breath of life from God entered them. When they stood on their feet, great fear fell on those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from Heaven say to them, ‘Come up here.’ So they went up to Heaven in a cloud as their enemies looked on” (Rev 11:11-12). People disagree as to whether these two were SS. Peter and Paul (killed in Rome) or some of the Old Testament prophets or just symbolize Christians throughout history being martyred. Whatever their identity, their enemies knew that not burying their bodies was a sign of added disrespect (after having killed them).

On the Vatican website’s article about the Christian Catacombs, this explanation is offered: “The custom of burying the dead in underground areas was already known to the Etruscans [the forerunners of the Romans], the Jews and the Romans, but with Christianity much more complex and larger burial hypogea originated in order to welcome the whole community in only one necropolis [city of the dead]. The ancient term to designate these monuments is coemeterium, which derives from the Greek and means ‘dormitory,’ thereby stressing the fact that for Christians, burial is just a temporary moment while they wait for the final resurrection.”

Since part of our creed is the belief in the “resurrection of the body” (which is not a reference to Christ’s Resurrection, which we affirm earlier in the Creed), how we treat the body after death is significant. We Christians do not think of the body as a mere shell or vehicle to carry around the soul, as if the soul were the “real” us, while the body was of no importance. The fact that God the Son became Incarnate (took on Flesh), shows us how important to God our bodies are.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments put out a Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy in 2001. In paragraph 253 of that document (in the section on funerals) it stated, “The body of the deceased, which was the temple of the Holy Spirit, [is] to be treated with the utmost respect.”

The next paragraph adds, “Christian piety has always regarded burial as the model for the faithful to follow since it clearly displays how death signifies the total destruction of the body. The practice eschews meanings that can be associated with mummification or embalming [the Vatican is not saying that we cannot embalm, so as to have a more pleasant wake; it just wants us to understand that embalming cannot fool us about death, as is attempted in Moscow with Lenin’s corpse on display to this day] or even with cremation. Burial recalls the earth from which man comes (cf. Gen 2:6) and to which he returns (cf. Gen 3:19; Sir 17:1), and also recalls the burial of Christ, the grain which, fallen on the earth, brought forth fruit in plenty” (cf. John 12:24).

Cremation is now allowed for Catholics, although it is not encouraged. The Church understands that many people choose it, not for the ancient pagan purpose of denying the resurrection of the body, but for the practical purpose that cremation is often cheaper than intact burial. The Vatican document explains in No. 254, “Cremation is also a contemporary phenomenon. In this regard, ecclesiastical discipline states: ‘Christian obsequies [funerals] may be conceded to those who have chosen to have their bodies cremated, provided that such choice was not motivated by anything contrary to Christian doctrine.’ The faithful should be exhorted not to keep the ashes of the dead in their homes, but to bury them in the usual manner, until God shall raise up those who rest in the earth, and until the sea gives up its dead” (cf. Aps 20, 13).

Here we are reminded that we are not to keep the ashes of our loved ones in our homes, nor are we to sprinkle them in various locations. Rather we are to either bury them, entomb them in a niche or have a proper disposition of them into the ocean (not dumping the ashes in, but dropping them in a container into the water).

The Catholic cemeteries of Mendota Heights, Minn. explain on their webpage, “Since the human body was the Temple of the Holy Spirit during life, was fed at the Eucharistic table, and will share in the bodily resurrection, contemporary cultural practices like scattering the cremated remains over water or from the air or keeping the cremated remains at home are not considered reverent forms of disposition that the Church requires. Other practices such as commingling cremated remains or dividing up cremated remains among family members or friends are not acceptable for Catholics.”

The International Theological Commission in 1992, in a document entitled, “Some Contemporary Questions in Eschatology,” reminded us, “Care must be taken lest the contemporary spread of cremation even among Catholics should in any way render obscure their right understanding about the resurrection of the flesh.”

Christ was mocked by the Sadducees for believing in the resurrection of the body. May the way in which we take care of our dead show our solidarity with Him, while also expressing our love and prayers for them.

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