“Give graciously to all the living, and withhold not kindness from the dead” (Sir 7:33). While the other six corporal works of mercy are identified in the famous parable of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:21-46), this work is inspired by the Old Testament figure Tobit, who buried the dead at the risk of his own life.
There is an obvious way we practice this work: when someone we know dies, we want to pay our respects by visiting the funeral home or attending their funeral. We even go to funerals of people we do not know well if they happen to be close to people who are dear to us. This is a gracious gesture and offers great consolation to the family of the bereaved.
However, this work of mercy also challenges us to reflect on the explicit Christian understanding of death, and thus how we bury the dead. In the Creed we profess that we believe in the resurrection of the body, and that fundamental truth shapes our rich Catholic tradition of funeral rites. We read in the Catechism: “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 2300).
The fact understand this as a “corporal” work of mercy significant. As we strive to take care of our bodies in life (a good thing fundamentally, until it becomes and obsession, so too the Church calls for a body, whether intact or cremated, to be treated with utmost care. Specifically, this means providing a proper burial. This is not just to “keep cemeteries in business.” It relates to our conviction in “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting” (from the Creed).
Some people may think it depressing to talk about one’s funeral ahead of time. Yet, what a blessing it can be, for a deceased person’s loved ones, for them to know that the decisions they need to make at the time of death are substantially guided by the articulation of one’s wishes, in advance. The saddest thing I believe I have read in any obituary is: “no services will be held.” What a shortchanging of the dignity of a human life!
At St. Mary, we are blessed to have a multi-tiered ministry to those who mourn. For many years, we have offered individual planning of the funeral liturgy, as well as an optional meal after the funeral Mass. Choir members try to come to sing at our funerals. Mary’s Tears is a six-week support group experience, offered twice a year, and is open to people even if their deceased loved one is not a parishioner of St. Mary. Annually, as we approach the month of All Souls, November, we extend a personal invitation to a special prayer service to families of parishioners who have died in the past twelve months. The longstanding custom of setting up Masses for the repose of an individual soul is laudable and not depressing.
The final act of kindness extended to Our Savior was a decent burial; this, too, can be an occasion when what we do for others, we do for him.
Once again, we thank the website, jubileeofmercy-eb.org for the main portion of these reflections.