Corporal Works of Mercy: Burying the Dead

The last of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy is to bury the dead. Other than our prayers, it is the last good thing we can do for someone, to ensure that they receive a proper burial. As a society, we have been moving away from this practice for decades and Catholics also have taken on secular trends. When I was working at the parish, it would sadden me so much to see devout little old church ladies dispatched expeditiously and economically by their families, without a funeral Mass.

Personally, there are two things I would not want to account for on Judgment Day, and they are at the bookends of life: failing to baptize my babies or failing to provide a funeral Mass and burial for my parents. It just seems to me that when people are completely dependent upon us, we have a higher obligation to deliver.

At the same time, today is not Judgment Day and I am not the Judge. I do understand that many people do not see the point of a funeral Mass, particularly if they are more or less unchurched. Many people are unaware that there is a significant difference between the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass being offered for their loved one, with all its particular prayers and blessings for the dead, and a Liturgy of the Word offered in the chapel of the funeral home. The funeral home service will be shorter and cheaper… a lot shorter and a lot cheaper. And it’s a pretty sure bet that even regular Mass attendees have rarely if ever heard a word on this topic from the pulpit to enlighten them.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), a.k.a. “the Vatican”, issued an instruction this week on burial and cremation entitled, To Rise with Christ. It is not lengthy or difficult to read and is well worth the effort. “Because of Christ,” it reads, “Christian death has a positive meaning.” Christians do not see death as the bitter end, but rather as a beginning of our eternal life.

“Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places… burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.

“The Church, who, as Mother, has accompanied the Christian during his earthly pilgrimage, offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of her grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory.

“By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity. She cannot, therefore, condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the ‘prison’ of the body.”

Here the document is clarifying the Christian understanding of death in comparison to some of the ideas that are prevalent in our society today. Sadly, there are Catholics who have drifted from their faith and have adopted some of these notions. It is easier for some to believe in “nothing” than to believe in judgment or repentance or even heaven.

The CDF then addresses cremation which has become an increasingly popular choice. The Church has a strong preference for burial, but acknowledges that there are legitimate reasons why cremation may be preferred. It states, “cremation, in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body.” However, “the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area which has been set aside for this purpose, and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority.”

We are not permitted to keep someone’s ashes at home, to scatter them, divide them or (as is popular now) to have them contained in jewelry or other objects. This is likely to be disturbing to some good people who had no idea this was not permissible. Hopefully this new document will be a catalyst for solid preaching about the Christian beliefs surrounding death and priests should be encouraged to assist those who have cremated remains in their possession.

Next week the Church observes All Saints and All Souls. Traditionally, the whole month of November is a time of prayer for the faithful departed. This is an opportune time to read To Rise with Christ and to honor our deceased loved ones by visiting their graves or, if need be, belatedly having their remains interred. May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

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