“Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. … For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:20-22).
The being alive, to which Saint Paul refers in this section of Corinthians, is more than just the new life of grace for the soul. Saint Paul is expressing the faith in the resurrection of the dead.
Our faith in the resurrection is grounded in the Incarnation of the Son of God, who was born, died, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven with the same body he had united to his divine person. Jesus promises not just the forgiveness of sins but also the resurrection of the body and eternal life to those who believe in him. This comes about by our sharing in the life of Jesus through the sacraments, beginning with baptism. In baptism we put on the new man and begin to live a new life in Christ. The other sacraments strengthen this new life, allowing the baptized to become holy like Jesus is holy.
Elsewhere, Saint Paul writes of the body as being a temple of the Holy Spirt. The Spirt does not simply dwell within the baptized. The Holy Spirit allows the baptized to share in the holiness of the Blessed Trinity. This participation incorporates the whole person, soul and body. For this reason, the Christian is to take care of how he or she treats his or her body.
There is a great concern in society for the proper care of the body. We are encouraged to eat the proper foods, partake in the proper amount of exercise and take time to rest. Yet, our care for the body does not end with death.
Christians have an ancient tradition of burying the bodies of the dead. Of having reverence for the dead. This is enshrined in the corporal work of mercy: Bury the dead. “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” (Ad resurgendum cum Christo 3).
Due to this, the faithful must be on guard against some of the popular ideas held by society concerning death, such as “death being a 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”(ibid). This is the opposite of what Christians believe. The Christian understanding of death is beautifully expressed in the funeral rites, where it states: “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made for them in heaven” (Preface 1).
Misunderstandings among Christians concerning death lead to poor burial practice. Too often many forgo the Rites of Christian Burial, particularly the funeral Mass. The funeral rites bring comfort to the family and friends of the deceased by reminding them of the Christian hope of forgiveness of sins and resurrection. As Saint Paul wrote, “so you may not grieve like the rest” (1 Thes 4:13); that is, we grieve without despair. Further, praying for the dead, particularly having Mass offered for them, assists in freeing them from the pains of purgatory.
The cremation of the body is another practice effected by a poor understanding of death. Although it is permitted for a Christian to be cremated, care must still be given that the cremated remains be placed in hallowed ground; that is, either buried in a cemetery or placed in a niche. “In order that every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism be avoided, it is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects” (Ad resurgendum cum Christo 7).
During this month of November let us pray for the faithful departed. May our prayers for them lead us to a deeper hope in our own resurrection.
Go and visit their places of rest, praying: Eternal rest grant on to them, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.
Father Jason Rocks is priest secretary to Bishop Dennis Sullivan and adjutant judicial vicar for the Diocese of Camden.