In the Old Testament Book of Tobit, the virtuous Tobit interrupts his dinner to go out to bury one of his Jewish countrymen who had been murdered, and his body had been left in the street. This act of burying the dead, especially those who have no one who will bury them, is a prime example of the seventh Corporal Work of Mercy.
In our time, we are accustomed to very sanitary procedures for burying those who have died. The bodies of the dead are taken to a funeral home, where they are washed, treated with embalming techniques, dressed in nice clothes, hair and makeup are applied, etc. But it was not so not very long ago. To bury the dead was often viewed as an urgent task (II Maccabees 12) which needed to be done quickly so that disease would not spread. A number of our Catholic saints actually died during times of plague because they spent their time burying those who had died from various diseases. It is for these reasons that it was seen as a great work of mercy to give a respectful burial to those who had died.
Even today, there are parts of the world where burying the dead is more like living in the Middle Ages than it is in modern America or in Europe. But even in our more technologically advanced societies, it is still important that we give respect to the bodies of those who have died. The human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (for those who are baptized and living in the state of grace). Even those who do not know the one true God, or who have lived in a state of separation from God (mortal sin) were created by God to live and to know His Eternal Love. Our bodies are part of who we are as human persons — we are not spirits inhabiting bodies, but we are body-soul composites. And thus every human body, even of the most hardened sinner, deserves respect and a proper burial when that person has passed from this life.
How can we, who are followers of Jesus Christ, live this Corporal Work of Mercy to “Bury the Dead”:
- Give respect to the corporal remains of those who have died. One way in which we can do this is by stopping our cars and waiting respectfully while a funeral procession passes.
- Attend the funerals of the departed. Not only is it good to pray for those who have died, but to show up out of respect for the dead and for the comfort of their families is an important thing in human society.
- Assist with the burial expenses for a poor person who has died. No one should have to be treated as “lesser” just because they were poor in this life. So how about helping with their funeral expenses?
In burying the dead, we give respect to the fact that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, and we are all called to share eternal life with Him through the Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.