Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Body of the Deceased

Concerning preparations for funerals and plans for burial or cremation (both for loved ones and one's self), there is a common theme I hear with regard to the body of the deceased: "That's not Mom." "It's just a shell." "Of course, Dad's not here [in the casket]." It's not universal. Not everyone talks that way, but many do.

As All Souls' Day approaches, I just want to remind people (Catholics in particular) that the human body is sacred. True, the dead body is dead, and it is no longer informed by the soul. It will indeed return to dust, as we are reminded on Ash Wednesday. However, it is still the beautiful creation of God, even if it will soon decay. This is part of why the Church for such a long time banned the practice of cremation (though the main part was its cultural ties to paganism and a rejection of the belief in the resurrection of the dead). The human body is to be honored as something good and holy, for it is God's creation. That's why a person's remains are sprinkled with holy water, covered with a pall, and incensed, not to mention the Bible and crucifix placed upon the casket. These are outward signs as we remember and pray for the person's soul, yes, but they are also geared towards our reverence for the body.

The human person is composed of both body and soul. A little known implication of that reality is this: human beings are incomplete in heaven. (Wait, what?) No, I don't mean that humans are not completely fulfilled by the beatific vision of God.  Souls are perfectly happy in the presence of God. Rather, I mean that God created us as bodily creatures, so to exist without a body leaves us incomplete in God's plan for us. That's why we have that line in the Nicene Creed that you might not have contemplated before: "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead." The dead will be raised at the end of time, not because God wants to engineer some kind of awesome or macabre spectacle. The dead will be raised because Jesus Christ was raised, and we who have died with him will also rise with him.

For this reason, cemeteries are considered holy places! They aren't unholy or unclean. They aren't scary or evil. Horror movies and popular Halloween traditions might tell us otherwise, but I assure you, graveyards are good and holy places.

So when you think of what you want done when you've passed away, or as you prepare for a loved one's death, keep these beliefs in mind. The human body is sacred, and it will one day be reunited with the soul.

[In case you're wondering, cremation is now an acceptable practice in the Church, and there is even a rite of burial specific to it. It is allowable under two conditions: it's not a denial of the resurrection of the body, and the remains will be deposited in a fitting location, like a columbarium. Scattering ashes and placing them on the mantle are not acceptable in the Catholic Church.]

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this clear and concise explanation. I have learned quite a lot from your blogs and am happy to see that you are blogging again.