By Fr. C. Daniels
All over Sacred scripture we find the practice and recommendations of taking care of the dead. In the books of the Maccabees we read of sacrifice offered for the dead and how the patriarchs, holy men and women of old took great care in the burial of the dead. Tobias is highly blessed because he went out at night to bury the dead who were left upon the streets by their persecutors. The Church, for two thousand years took great pains in seeing to this act of mercy. With what honour and care in her holy liturgy does she not provide for the dead? See the care as to where and how the body may be laid to rest!
And why, we may ask, is so much done for a body that can no longer benefit from such decor? What difference to the soul if her body is buried in blessed ground or receives a tombstone of great beauty? Will it change the judgement passed upon her if her body be cremated? Did not Our Lord seem to say that between the body and the soul there is little comparison: "Fear not them that kill the body, but cannot kill the soul?" In the psalms we read: “They have given the dead bodies of thy servants to be meat for the fowls of the air: the flesh of thy saints for the beasts of the earth. They have poured out their blood as water, round about Jerusalem and there was none to bury them.” ( P s . 7 8 2 )
Whatever happened to their bodies had indeed no effect upon the holiness of their souls. In answer to these questions, let us not forget that the body was the temple of the soul, and that on the last day, the day of the general resurrection, the body will rise again and be reunited to the soul.
Is it not true that we are drawn to prayer upon coming across a tombstone? And although this pious work is of the greatest importance and greatly benefits the souls whose bodies we so venerate, yet we are reminded also that the body was once the temple and instrument of the soul, a soul loved by God and invited by Him to eternal life.
Again St. Augustine explains: “Yet it does not follow that the bodies of the departed are to be despised and flung aside, and above all of just and faithful men, whose souls did use their bodies as holy organs and vessels. If a father's garment and ring, and whatever such like, is the more dear to those whom they leave behind, the greater their affection is towards their parents, in no wise are the bodies themselves to be spurned, which truly we wear in more familiar and close conjunction than any of our putting on. For these pertain not to ornament or aid which is applied from without, but to the very nature of man.”
So it is that not even the place where these bodies lie are to be of little importance. Look and see how our holy Mother the Church has provided the bodies of the saints with most magnificent tombs. Here we are drawn not to pray for these blessed souls, but rather to supplicate their intercession.
St. Augustine writes: “When therefore the mind recalls a place rendered venerable by the name of a Martyr, she also commends herself in affection of heartfelt recollection and prayer. And when this affection is exhibited to the departed by faithful men who were most dear to them, there is no doubt that it profits them who while living in the body merited that such things should profit them after this life.”
We read in the “History of the Church”, by Eusebius, how the martyrs' bodies in Gaul were exposed to dogs, and how even the leavings of those dogs and bones of the dead were burned up by fire and these ashes scattered on the river Rhone, lest anything should be left in anyway whatever as a memorial to the Catholics. Such was the hatred of the persecutors. Yet behind their hatred, who cannot see their fear in the very thought that anything should remain behind unto their own torment?
It is no wonder that the Church has always had a deep horror of the pagan practice of cremation. Although it may not be intrinsically evil, nevertheless such a violent destruction can never incite reverence or devotion. One is immediately left without zeal to pray for the soul. In fact, it is not uncommon to see people on their knees next to the grave of a deceased loved one fervently praying for their souls. One never sees anyone, however, at prayer next to an urn of ashes. Is this not enough proof that cremation in contrary to charity? The Church has always been very severe in this regard. She refuses to bury anyone who has desired to be cremated and she even forbids the next of kin to comply with such a testament.
In conclusion, let everyone remember to care for their deceased loved ones, erecting suitable tombstones and having Masses offered for the repose of their souls.