November 10, 2005
As a young boy, growing up in a close knit family in Newark’s Ironbound, I vividly remember my grandfather’s funeral. The three day wake. The body crowded with bright flowers and tears. The loud sobbing that interrupted the muffled sharing of family news among relatives and friends. The Requiem Mass in Church. And then the cemetery.
One image is as clear to me today as in 1955. On the way to the cemetery, I looked out of the car window. On the sidewalk, there stood a man. As the cortege passed by, he stopped and reverently removed his hat. A man he did not know had died. His life ended. And he showed respect. A simple ritualized gesture and somehow I felt connected.
Rituals are meant to connect us with one another and more importantly with God. In many families and faith traditions, ritual plays an important role in burying the dead. Many people today still follow the custom of viewing the deceased at the home or the funeral home, going to church for a religious service and then to the cemetery. And not a few return to some sort of meal where memories are shared and relationships strengthened. As a young boy, the meal after my grandfather’s funeral struck me as too festive. Not any more. His life did not end at the graveside. His memory lived. His family lived. His name continued. And he himself had been summoned to the fullness of life.
In the last twenty five years, many changes have been taking place in the way people bury their dead. The most dramatic change is the use of cremation. At one time, cremation was done in defiance of belief in the resurrection. Not so today. Ever since the Church ended its opposition to cremation in 1963, many Catholics are choosing to cremate their loved ones. Yet, even when cremation may best meet the needs of a family, the Church still calls for reverence for the body. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains at home is not in keeping with the respect we should have for the body.
In Catholic ritual, there has always been a special reverence given to the body of the deceased before and after the funeral. When families and friends are able to grieve in the presence of the body, they more easily deal with loss and sorrow. Furthermore, the body is important. We are matter and spirit, body and soul. By taking on our humanity, the Son of God sanctified all creation. The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and to be treated with reverence. The body itself, though dead, remains a vivid reminder of the faith story of the person who has died. “This is the body once washed in Baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation and fed with the bread of life. This is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing” (
Order of Christian Funerals, Appendix ll (1997).
From the beginning, Christians chose to bury their dead in a manner similar to the Jews. Unlike their Roman neighbors who adhered to the practice of burning their dead, the first Christians placed their dead in the earth. In those days in Rome, there existed cemeteries in the open, but the Christians preferred underground cemeteries. They buried their dead, just as Christ was buried—in the earth.
They showed great respect to the bodies that one day would rise from the dead. In imitation of Christ, the dead were wrapped in shroud. They were brought to the catacombs and placed in the
loculi without any kind of coffin. A marble slab closed the opening. Often the person’s name along with a Christian symbol and prayer was engraved on the marble. With deliberation, Christians separated themselves from the pagan way of bidding farewell to the dead. They visited the burial places of those who had gone before them. They prayed. And they knew they were still connected in the communion of saints.
It is not uncommon today to come upon a funeral procession accompanying the body of someone who has died to a cemetery or mausoleum. The traffic keeps moving. People walk by. The polite rituals of respect even for the stranger gone. Have we forgotten, or worse, do we want to forget that we really are connected with each other? The poet John Donne so beautifully expressed this truth. “
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."(John Donne,
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation 17, 1624).