by Father Andrew M. Jaspers
The question of this article is one of fairly recent vintage. That is, until recently, most Christians buried their dead without much consideration, and out of centuries of habit. But the combination of a more secularized society and new methods of treating the human body after death prompt reflection on this basic question. We may not personally have any plans but for our own burial. But we likely have relatives or friends who do not share this presumption. It is therefore useful to have reasons to share with them, perhaps to explain why you desire to have your body buried after death.
Despite the fraying of our social fabric, there is still a basic reverence for a recently deceased person’s body. For instance, no one would think to put a human corpse out with the trash on the sidewalk. And state civil law generally bars the disposal of human remains from anywhere except a place designated for that purpose. For instance, it is against the law to scatter ashes in a waterway.
Confusion about reverence due to the human body arises when the earthly remains resemble the body less and less. Consider remembering grandma by viewing her body versus looking at an urn which holds her ashes.” This same difficulty in connecting human dignity to a body happens when the body is very small, as with embryos. This accounts for greater public acceptance for early abortions rather than late abortions—because the person is harder to recognize earlier in pregnancy.
That human bodies should be treated with reverence seems to be a law that arises from conscience untutored by faith. But the Christian faith gives added reason for burial of the body, given the revelation of Jesus Christ, who was buried in a tomb and rose again in His body. This shows that human bodies are only interrupted by death, and will be reconstituted and glorified in the resurrection of the dead. Thus, they should be kept intact and in a fitting place until they are revived.
The Christian catacombs were an early expression of how the bodies of saints sanctify their places of rest and invite us to pray for them and ask for their prayers. This prefigured Christian cemeteries, where burial rites and visits to the tombs continue. These practices remind us of our communion with the dead. “At the funeral rites. . . the Christian community affirms and expresses the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven in the one great communion of saints. Though separated from the living, the dead are still at one with the community of believers on earth and benefit from their prayers and intercession” (Order of Christian Funerals 6). We are blessed at Sacred Heart Guardians to extend this reverence to the tiniest among us. And we are blessed that you help extend this dignity to them.
Fr. Jaspers is chaplain at North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale, MN, teaches at the St. Paul Seminary, and is chaplain of Sacred Heart Guardians and Shelter.