“To bury the dead” is the last Corporal Work of Mercy. Death itself is the natural severance of the soul from the body. It puts an end to all earthly plans, dreams, desires and endeavours. At death humans become history as everything about them would be read in the past. As the choristers sing: “what the living are is what the dead were, and what the dead are is what the living will become at their appointed times.”
In our physical world, we observe that things have beginnings. They also have ends. In human life, death brings that end to the person. “Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity” (Shakespeare, Hamlet). Death is a certainty. “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that, comes judgment” (Hebrews 9: 27).
Though we do not know when it will come, but it will, surely, when it will come. “That we shall die we know; ’tis but the time and drawing days out, that men stand upon” (Shakespeare Julius Caesar). When it will be, how it will be, and where it will be are all uncertainties. But with the cessation of consciousness, breaths, bumping of blood and so on, the body dies. Soon after death, rigor mortis sets in on the body. The next thing will be the decomposition of the body.
At the stage of decomposition, which is about 30 hours after death, the dead body is no longer hygienic to be left around those who are alive. If there were no embalmment, maggots would start forming in the body. Odor of decaying body will saturate the area. We may want to stay around the person because of our relationship, but the instinct for self-preservation would somehow push us out of the place.
The truth is that 30 hours after death, the body is already constituting public nuisance. No matter how we feel about the person while he lived, we are more likely to approach his/her body with caution. At this point, no matter what, we would feel like giving the dead some befitting burial – to lay the person to rest.
It is common sense logic to bury the dead because of the impending health hazards dead bodies pose to the general public. But apart from the natural instinct to avoid the health hazards dead bodies pose, we bury the dead because of the dignity of the human person. The dead body was the body of a person and not of an animal. This person was created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1: 27).
During baptism that body was anointed. In Pauline teaching, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20). The respect we give to our bodies because they are the temple of the Holy Spirit will certainly not stop because the soul has been severed from the body. The respect continues.
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).
It is the hope of the resurrection that gives meaning to our faith as Christians. It is this same hope of the resurrection that would make us plan to bury others. However, we know that is not always easy to bury the dead. In our next edition we are going to look at the challenges of burying the dead.